Plant Profile: Magnificent Mums

Nothing says “fall” like chrysanthemums. Mums are the most widely grown potted plant in the country, and one of the longest lasting cut flowers, and the enormous range of colors they bloom in makes them suitable for just about any area. They will hold their blooms on the plant for upwards of a month, providing color long into the fall.

Chrysanthemums have a rich and varied history, beginning with their cultivation by the ancient Chinese. The plant was revered as an herb, and was believed to hold the power of life. Various remedies were derived from different parts of the plant, and the young leaves and petals were often eaten in salads. The Japanese discovered the chrysanthemum in the 8th century AD, and they were so taken with it, it was adopted as the crest and official seal of the Emperor. Festivals are still held in both countries celebrating this pretty little flower.

Chrysanthemums are part of a large family of plants that include daisies, coneflower, black-eyed susans, and asters, among others. The blossom of this family of plants is the rather distinctive “flower head”, comprised of ray flowers (the petals) and disk flowers (the center). If one examines the center of a flower head, notice that it is made of up to hundreds of tiny, tiny, perfect flowers. Garden Mums are fairly easy to grow, as long as they have adequate moisture and sunlight, a beautiful blossom is sure to appear in late summer or early fall. Pinching the stems as they elongate will encourage branching, and create a more compact plant. A balanced fertilizer applied several times throughout the growing season will help keep the foliage nice and green and strengthen roots and stems so they can support the bounty of blossoms that appears in the fall. Flowering is triggered by cooler temperatures and shorter days, and can be influenced by artificial light as well, so plants surrounding lamp posts or planted directly underneath a front porch light that is on all night may be delayed somewhat.

The variety of colors, sizes, and flower forms found in the humble Chrysanthemum is amazing. There are simple daisy-types with a single row of petals around the center, “cushion” mums are one of the more common types found in the fall, fully double with no distinct centers, as well as “button” mums that are nothing but a mass of tiny little petals. “Spider” mums are a popular cut flower, sometimes reaching larger than 3″ in diameter, and have very long, pendulous petals. “Spoon” petal mums have tubular petals that are wider and flattened at the tips. Color can be anything except true blue (and even then, the chrysanthemum is a very dye-able flower), including bi-colored blossoms.

The mums commonly grown in garden centers are typically annual varieties, meant to be discarded at the end of the season. They may, however, make it through the winter if planted in the ground in time and given adequate protection. They need time to establish roots and harden off before the world really cools off. There are some varieties of truly perennial, hardy fall blooming chrysanthemums, with beautiful blossoms, but they generally do not keep the nice round, compact form that they have in pots.

As for something completely different and unique to do with these plants, Chrysanthemum bonsai is something I discovered only recently, and am fascinated by it. The Japanese have been doing it for centuries. Unlike traditional tree bonsai, a specimen plant can be produced in a single year from a single cutting. The mum itself can be trained into a variety of forms, creating anything from small single-trunked upright trees to a cascade trailing down the pot, all ready to burst into bloom when the weather turns cooler and darker. Starting with the right variety, a perfect, miniature flowering forest can be created in hardly any time at all.