The "golden flower" returns

 Chrysanthemum, fall’s favorite flower — @AJ/Flickr

Chrysanthemum, fall’s favorite flower — @AJ/Flickr

You know its fall when the leaves start to turn, the sweaters come out of hiding and vibrant, jewel-toned chrysanthemums are suddenly everywhere.

You couldn’t avoid them even if you wanted to since they show up at every garden center, farm stand, home outlet and supermarket. There are other flowers that bloom in autumn – goldenrods, asters and sedums to name three – but mums reign supreme as the most popular potted plant of the season.

Chrysanthemums have a long history, having first been cultivated some 2,000 years ago in the imperial gardens of Asia. This “golden flower” – the literal translation of its scientific name -- was adopted as the personal emblem of Japanese emperors somewhere around the fourth century.

According to staff at Syngenta Flowers, one of the largest breeders and producers, yellow mums still dominate the market. Today, the palette of intense colors includes nearly every color but blue, spanning the spectrum from pure whites and vivid pinks to warm corals, oranges and russets straight through to vibrant lavenders and deep purples.

Is there any territory left unconquered? Perhaps it is the “perfect red,” breeders say. There are some good candidates like Syngenta’s ‘Hestia Hot Red’ and ‘Aideen Fire Red,’ but development of new cultivars continues.

It’s hard to resist gathering up a few potted mums to give the garden one last burst of color before the onset of cold weather. They are ideal replacements for tired and yellowing annuals in your patio containers and can give flower borders a fresh, new look as the brilliant fall foliage blazes overhead.

No small factor in the popularity of chrysanthemums is the price – hefty pots of heavily budded plants are sold for as little as three dollars apiece, making mum fever an inexpensive indulgence. Ease of propagation keeps the consumer cost low, which is just as well since most potted mums are treated as temporary and disposable decorations along with seasonal pumpkins and cornstalks.

In fact, you may notice these fall flowers are no longer called “hardy mums” as they once were. That’s because in the quest for more robust flowering, compact growth habit and saturated colors, breeders have not emphasized the ability to withstand winter temperatures.

You can try planting your purchased mums (and it’s best to do it as soon as they come home), but don’t expect every variety to return next spring. For a guaranteed repeat performance, you need to seek out the newer Igloo mums, produced by Aris Horticultural Services in Ohio, which are bred to be winter-worthy even in locations with harsher winters than ours. They cost a bit more, but are permanent additions to the garden.

 Mum festival at Longwood Gardens — cocoabiscuit/Flickr

Mum festival at Longwood Gardens — cocoabiscuit/Flickr

Alternately, consider planting other perennial varieties that are available in the spring. Of course, this means the gardener must take on the tasks of proper chrysanthemum care, including several rounds of “pinching back” the growing shoots to keep the plants compact.

Too little sun, too much fertilizer, root competition from nearby trees and shrubs, and even locations too near outdoor lighting can result in poor performance. Mums respond strongly to periods of light and darkness, requiring short days and long nights to prompt flowering. That’s why competitive growers often must cover their plants with light-excluding fabric to have them at their best at show time.

It’s probably easier to let the pros do the growing and enjoy the instant gratification of plants ready to put on a show. All you really need to do is keep your potted mums watered – no fertilizer is necessary since flowers already have formed.

The standard garden mum doesn’t represent the full range of chrysanthemums. Divided into 13 classes, they come in a wide variety of forms ranging from huge “football mums” used for corsages to delicate “spider” types with narrow petals and tiny “button” mums with small, round blossoms.

Perhaps the best way to enjoy the wider world of mums is to attend a show or festival such as those listed below. But really, with a few pots in hand, you needn’t go farther than your own backyard or front steps to salute the brief but gracious reign of Queen Mum.

SHOWS AND EXHIBITS

The New Jersey State Chrysanthemum Society, affiliated with the National Chrysanthemum Society, holds its 65th annual show Oct. 13 and 14 the Frelinghuysen Arboretum, 353 E. Hanover Ave., Morris Township. Call the arboretum at 973-326-7601 or see the arboretum web site, arboretumfriends.org for details. The show is free.

Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pa. presents its extravagant annual Chrysanthemum Festival Oct. 25 through Nov. 18. More than 20,000 mums in unique forms are part of the display. For visitor information, call 800-737-5500 or see longwoodgardens.org.


SOURCES FOR PERENNIAL MUMS

Bluestone Perennials, 7211 Middle Ridge Road, Madison, OH 44057. Call 800-852-5243 or see bluestoneperennials.com.

Lazy S’s Farm Nursery, 2360 Spotswood Trail, Barboursville, VA 22923. See their on-line catalog at lazyssfarm.com.