It’s chrysanthemum time

Yes, until the late 1940s and 1950s, October, November and December were chrysanthemum time. That was when the flower bloomed naturally. You see, in order to flower, the chrysanthemum needs to have several weeks of at least nine hours of uninterrupted darkness to set bud. With more light than that, the plant keeps growing and growing and never budding.

Then, in the late 1940s, professor Ken Post at Cornell (he was my advisor during my Cornell years) and professors at other major colleges of agriculture began experimenting with lights and shade cloths to see if they could set buds on chrysanthemums in order to get them to flower when they wanted them to. The system looked at many plants and they charted the daylength needs of certain plants. They were successful, and so today, this beautiful flower is available nearly every day of the year. Yes, it was a bit more complicated than that.

Pre-Post, my dad would drive to Geneva or Newark, where there were greenhouses that specialized in producing chrysanthemum cuttings. He would buy specific varieties so that they would bloom at different times. You see, there were varieties that needed eight, nine, 10 or 11 weeks of darkness to set bud. If you knew what you were doing, you planned for continuous bloom with one planting in early June. All the plants grew well through the summer, then in about early September the eight-week plants started to set bud while others continued to grow green, for another week or whatever it took.

One of Post’s favorite exercises was to assign each student in a class a nation where they were going to grow mums. The student had to find the place on a map, study latitude and sunrise/sunset times for each month of the year, and report their findings.

The system was not complex. You planted your cuttings in beds of any length and widths of about 4 feet. Then you built a simple framework to hold a line of lights about 4 feet above the bench, you spaced the 50-watt lights at about 4 feet and you lighted the plants until the number of weeks to set bud. This lighting structure was built so you could, when needed, pull an opaque black cloth over the whole thing to make it totally dark. Since the majority of our mums come from Colombia, where day and night are nearly equal, lights are never needed, but nearly every crop has to have the black cloth application.

There is a lot of symbolism associated with this chrysanthemum. Generally, people feel that they contribute to long life, fidelity and happiness, and that good things will happen. Red mums often symbolize love and deep passion, while yellow mums remind us of neglected love or sorrow. The white flowers talk of loyalty and honesty. Violet blossoms are sent to wish a speedy recovery.

In Japan, the mum is the official seal of the imperial family and is used on official documents. For people in the military, the highest honor that can be bestowed is the Supreme Order of the Chrysanthemum.

It would take pages and pages to cover all the symbolisms, beliefs and uses of this versatile flower, as it is used in so many nations, cultures and religions of the world.

The chrysanthemum is a very versatile flower; it comes in many shapes and forms, and in myriad colors. It can be a daisy or a pompom with several long-lasting flowers on a branched stem.

It can come as a single stem with one flower like a spider mum or a Fuji mum, the one depicted on many postage stamps of Japan and in much of their watercolor art. Our famous football mum is a single stem.

It is available at any time during the year and the prices do not fluctuate because of holidays or special occasions. It is one of our most popular garden plants, as evidenced by the number that appear at every possible outlet from early August through mid-October. For the price, I would not try to rebloom them next year.

Be well!

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