(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on November 10, 2010. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously-published material may not be able to respond to your questions.)
Chrysanthemums, better known as “mums,” are one of those plants you either love or don’t really care for. They can be fairly easy to grow but may require some extra care if you want them looking their best. The word Chrysanthemum comes from the Greek chryso, meaning “gold,” and anthemon, meaning “flower,” in reference to the plant's gorgeous yellow flowers. Native to Asia and northeastern Europe, these plants are part of the Aster family.
First cultivated in China back in the 15th century B.C., Chrysanthemums were grown for both their beauty and their medicinal qualities. The plants soon spread across Asia and then to Europe as European traders and explorers ventured progressively deeper into Asian territories.
The "Four Gentlemen" or "Four Noble Ones" — four plants associated with the changing seasons — are commonly represented in Chinese and East Asian art. They are the plum blossom, the orchid, the bamboo, and the chrysanthemum. Incorporated into paintings since the time of the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279 A.D.), the chrysanthemum is used to symbolize autumn.
Cultivation of chrysanthemums spread to Japan sometime around the eighth century. The Japanese emperor incorporated the image of the flower into his official seal and into the seals of many other prosperous families. Since the 10th century, Japan has celebrated the flower every September 9th on Chrysanthemum Day, also known as the Festival of Happiness.
As European travelers and explorers journeyed across Asia, they eventually brought the plant home with them. Since the plant tends to hold its blooms pretty well, potted plants were placed near European gravesides to give color to somber spots. In the late 18th century, Colonel John Stevens (an American horticulturalist) managed to bring the mum "across the pond."
Mums Down Under
In the Land of Oz, people often give their mothers, or “mums,” a Chrysanthemum plant on Mother’s Day. A “mum for Mum” is the Australian grower’s mantra. A 1940 article in The Australian written by Erica (no last name needed, I guess) notes, “No other garden flower compares to the chrysanthemum in usefulness and popularity in the autumn months of the year. The prevailing colors of the flowers are in the sad and brilliant tonings of autumn, they harmonize with the fall of the leaf and catch in the openings in their petals the color of sunset…”
Chrysanthemums can be planted throughout the growing season, although they more commonly appear during certain times of the year, much like certain “holiday” plants (think poinsettias at Christmas and Easter lilies around Easter). Mums tend to appear later in the year at many nurseries and garden centers, but gardeners could really benefit from planting them in the spring. They do best as container plants in the summer, after which they can be planted out in the garden and still have enough time to establish their root systems for next year.
Chrysanthemums favor well-drained sandy or loamy soils with a relatively neutral pH. They are susceptible to mildew, so keeping them on the drier side is highly recommended. Let the morning sun rid the plants' leaves and flowers of any dew or moisture. These are not moisture-loving plants, and they're hardy enough to withstand dry periods between waterings.
If you’re enthralled by mums or just want to know more about them, you should consider joining the National Chrysanthemum Society. This organization promotes the growth and propagation of mums and has numerous chapters across the U.S. The group also publishes The Chrysanthemum, a quarterly journal dedicated to promoting this beautiful plant and connecting some of its biggest fans. The organization even sells fun “Mum's the Word” t-shirts in a variety of colors. Finally, a way to proudly profess your fascination with this gorgeous plant while looking stylish at the same time.
For more information about chrysanthemums and tips on how to grow them, be sure to check out the extensive library of mum-related features on Dave’s Garden. These great articles will help you care for your plants, establish the proper growing conditions for them, and provide you with some insightful backstory.