Garden Mastery: Chrysanthemums fill our region with brilliant fall colors

Our gardening neighbors in the Midwestern, Eastern and Northern states welcome their fall season in predictable ways. The sun rises later in the morning, setting a bit earlier in the evening. Nighttime temperatures begin to dip. Bird species begin their southward migration to warmer climates. The real fall showstopper in these parts of our country is the dazzling display of leaves beginning to change color, from gold to reddish-orange, from crimson to brown.

The Southern California fall season is shorter in duration. Changes to our landscape and gardens arrive slowly, are more subtle and are too soon gone. While we don’t have the display of leaves changing color all around us, we do begin to notice that our garden plants are now beyond their peak, and bloomers have finished flowering.

It’s at this time of year that I wish for just a little something to brighten up my garden landscape. And then I find just what I was wishing for — at the supermarket, of all places! I spot rows of potted chrysanthemums, all wrapped in vivid foil colors. Yes, fall has arrived in Southern California.

These past several months, you may not have been able to travel farther than your local grocery or home improvement store. So, let me invite you to a virtual armchair “historical tour” on chrysanthemums. We’ll travel far and back in time to learn about this flower and plant.

Chrysanthemums, often called by their shortened name “mums,” naturally flower in the fall when days are short and nights are long. With blooms lasting for weeks, mums are easy to grow and come in a variety of sizes and colors. Perhaps you’ve heard of some of them by their common names: pompon, button, spray, cushion, spider and florist’s mums, a special variety bred to have long stems. Did you know that mums also enjoy some interesting symbolic meanings? Depending on which part of the world you come from, the flower can symbolize life and vitality, or death and sorrow.

Chrysanthemums are in the Asteraceae plant family and have a long and interesting history. Originating in Asia, where they were cultivated as a medicinal herb, chrysanthemums were introduced to Japan in the fifth century and are considered a symbol of the country itself. The Japanese call the chrysanthemum “kiku”; the flower blossom is the imperial crest for the Japanese royal family and is the country’s national flower. By the 17th century, the chrysanthemum was brought to Europe. The first flowers seen by Europeans may have been small, yellow and daisylike. Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist, gave the chrysanthemum its Latin name from the Greek words chrysous, meaning “golden,” and anthemon, meaning “flower.”

First introduced to the U.S. during colonial times, the chrysanthemum gained ever-increasing popularity by the late 19th century with garden clubs promoting their special collections of new varieties. Today, gardeners can learn about all chrysanthemum flower types from the National Chrysanthemum Society’s classification system. The society’s website lists the flowers according to 13

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If you would like to add some color to welcome the fall season, you can’t beat chrysanthemums.

It seems that everywhere you look in October you see chrysanthemums blooming. Widely available and relatively inexpensive, they are almost indispensable for providing quick color to the fall landscape. Whether you plant them into beds or feature them in containers, these cheerful plants covered in yellow, gold, bronze, purple, lavender, white, pink or burgundy flowers are a delight in the landscape.

Chrysanthemums, also called mums, are hardy, long-lived perennials that bloom in the fall. Chrysanthemums are triggered to bloom only when the nights are long enough. During the summer, when days are long and nights are short, chrysanthemums in the garden grow vegetatively. As the period of nighttime darkness increases in late summer and early fall, flower bud initiation occurs. This takes place here in August and September, with flowers of chrysanthemums growing in gardens opening from October through December. Blooming container-grown plants are available at nurseries as early as September. Plants generally stay in full bloom for about two to three weeks.

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When purchasing chrysanthemums at the nursery, it is important to choose the right type of chrysanthemum for your landscape. You may find three different types of chrysanthemums offered at the nursery — cut-flower mums, pot mums and garden mums.

Cut-flower mums are selected for their ability, when cultivated properly, to produce spectacularly large flowers with long, strong stems suitable for cutting. Typically, cut-lower mums grown in pots will have a number of stems, each one terminating in one large, showy flower.

Pot mums were developed to produce a beautiful container plant with large flowers. They are grown in greenhouses and must be pinched, disbudded and even treated with growth regulators to produce a shorter, more attractive finished product. By manipulating the greenhouse environment, growers can produce blooming pot mums all year. These are the mums commonly available in pots at florist shops, but you also see them in nurseries this time of year. The plants are more upright and produce larger flowers than garden mums.

Neither cut-flower mums nor pot mums are generally suitable for the flower garden. Both tend to grow tall and leggy in the garden, resulting in plants that are floppy and unattractive, even though the flowers may be pretty.

The best chrysanthemums for planting in the landscape are garden mums. These mums are bred and selected for growing in the garden. They are short, bushy plants about 12 to 18 inches tall that literally cover themselves with clusters of small one and one-half inch flowers in virtually every color except blue. This type of mum is available now at nurseries and garden centers in 4-inch, 6-inch and gallon-size containers.

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