Chrysanthemums are making a comeback. You heard it here first. How do I know? I’ll tell you; because it’s inevitable. Flowers are like clothing when it comes to the whims of fashion. Just as there’s an inevitability that we’ll all be lusting after flares and ponchos at some point in the future, so it goes that chrysanthemums will again be all the rage. Dahlias, shunned throughout the 80s and 90s for their bold, brassy blooms, have sailed out of the doldrums to become one of the most popular garden flowers grown today. If you follow just one dahlia grower on Instagram you will soon discover a thousand more, spread across the globe from Santa Barbara to Shanghai. Before you know it, you’ll be as besotted as the rest of us, another dahlia die-hard in the making. Gladioli, reduced to affectionate ridicule by Dame Edna Everage, are on their way up again, darlings. And the flower we associate with funerals and petrol station forecourts, the humble chrysanthemum, will be the next flower to shake off its humdrum image.
What tends to ‘do for’ any popular flower (or garment) is ubiquity. Quite simply, when certain flowers or plants become popular they start to be produced commercially in vast quantities, often somewhere overseas. Available everywhere, they are soon considered a disposable commodity, driving down their price. You see it with narcissi and hybrid primroses in spring, with gladioli in late summer and poinsettias at Christmas. If you stop to think about it, how is it even possible to produce plants and flowers at those prices? Won’t your friends consider you cheap and unsustainable for buying them? Maybe. The rot has set in. In a quest to differentiate, ever more vulgar novelties are foisted upon the market to drive sales until the subject’s image is tarnished, seemingly irreversibly. When growers start to supply any flower in an unnatural shade of blue, black or in rainbow colours, that’s generally the beginning of the end.
Chrysanthemums have suffered more than their fair share of indignity at the hands of growers, eager to present us with something different. I’ve seen them in all the freak-show guises listed above, with the added humiliation of being sprayed with glitter. Supermarket-bought chrysanthemums have been bred so intensively, farmed so efficiently and conditioned so cleverly that they may as well be made of plastic. Gerberas went before them and butterfly orchids (phalaenopsis) find themselves on the edge of a precipice, certainly based on the cerulean specimens offered for sale in my local Tesco branch. Looks-wise, what all of these flowers share is a very small margin between natural attractiveness and ugly artificiality. They are like the Hollywood star who risks one more procedure to advance their career: things can so easily go wrong, a fragile beauty becoming fixed and grotesque overnight. Coming to the rescue is a new army of small-scale flower farmers offering us a different way to buy characterful flowers grown locally and usually outdoors. This might not suit gerberas and orchids, but it’s great news for the humble ‘mum’ or ‘chrysanth’, depending on which abbreviation you prefer.
In commending chrysanthemums to you, and I do so most vociferously, there is a huge amount to be said; perhaps more than for my BFF (Best Flower Friend), the dahlia. To begin with, chrysanthemums tend to be at their most glorious late in the year, any time between late July and December, depending on the cultivar and how it’s grown. In a world where the focus of our gardening attention seems to be spring and summer, chrysanthemums provide a reminder that there are as many joys to behold in autumn and early winter if ones plans and plants wisely. In mid-November, our allotment is ablaze with colour – whites, yellows, oranges, pinks, peaches, reds and burgundies – when otherwise there might be nothing but rotting squashes and muddy paths to behold. Provided the flowers are cut when they are in their prime, they will last at least three weeks in a vase, which cannot be said for many blooms. Almost all varieties are suitable for cutting – pretty, daisy-like sprays such as those produced by ‘Breitner’s Supreme’ and ‘E.H. Wilson’ are fabulous fillers, while a few long stems of ‘Tula Purple’ or ‘Spider Bronze’ will effortlessly fill a tall vase.
Chrysanthemums are cheap and easy to buy. The normal means is as cuttings from a reputable mail-order nursery such as Halls of Heddon, Woolmans or Chrysanthemums Direct. Each cutting will set you back £2-£3, quickly producing plants of a size that will allow your own cuttings to be taken. Even if you purchase cutting in August or September you should get blooms before Christmas in milder areas. The range of cultivars available commercially remains huge, despite chrysanthemums’ relative obscurity in recent years. Unlike dahlias, their naming tends to be rather dry and humourless, with most commemorating a person, for example ‘Jessie Cooper’, or describing a ‘series’ and colourway, for example, ‘Southway Sloe’. Some cultivars are extremely old; after all, chrysanthemums have been in cultivation for over 3000 years. In the 4th century AD they arrived in Japan and from there they were developed into the many beautiful hybrids we have available to us today.
Chrysanthemums offer at least as much variety in flower form and colour as dahlias, but anyone taking their first steps towards conversion should consider the old Rubellum and Korean types first. These started to appear perhaps 150 years ago and have stood the test of time. They are some of the easiest, hardiest chrysanthemums to grow and the least formal in appearance, flowering through the autumn and into winter. Rubellum and Korean chrysanthemums are perfect for the cutting garden or herbaceous border, providing a late-season source of nectar for pollinators as well as oodles of flowers for the house. The plants are naturally bushy so need plenty of space. They are often strong enough to support themselves provided they are planted in a sheltered spot. Unlike most other chrysanthemums, Rubellums and Koreans don’t require lifting and protection over winter. A light mulch of straw, bracken or old potting compost will suffice if you have some to hand.
As a relative newcomer to chrysanthemum growing, I simply purchase one cutting each of several varieties and then decide which I like. Those that find favour can be readily be propagated at no extra expense and spares given away to gardening friends. Our allotment neighbour Archie has a neat trick of taking cuttings from chrysanthemums sold as pot plants and creates a terrific display in his garden at home.
Those people who dislike chrysanthemums often cite their pungent odour as the main detractor. I cannot argue with that; appreciation of scent is such a personal thing. Learning to love a smell you have negative associations with is hard, if not impossible. Furthermore, the green, slightly musty fragrance is produced principally by the foliage, as with tomatoes, so it’s present at all times where chrysanthemums are found. Personally, I adore the scent; combined with the smell of wet leaves and cold earth, it is the very essence of autumn.
A chrysanthemum plant’s stiffness of form can also be a turnoff. This is fair to some extent, but more a consequence of how plants have been grown in the past. ‘Stopped’ and staked to within an inch of their lives, chrysanthemums were once planted in neat rows by gentlemen of a certain age in cloth caps. One only has to pick up one of the many tomes written in the mid-1900s to appreciate that cultivating chrysanthemums was no joking matter. (The extent to which DDT is recommended as a cure for all plant ills will also make your toes curl.) Few of us would wish to grow chrysanthemums as a stiff and sterile monoculture these days. Such images need to be erased from our minds and their potential reappraised. We grow C. ‘Dixter Orange’ as a low hedge on our allotment (pictured above), where it forms a perfectly behaved, neat edge, requiring no support whatsoever. Flowers are produced continuously from late July until November, with a peak during August and September. It’s hard to argue against such generosity. Because they bloom late in the year, chrysanthemums are not plants that will leave you with gaping holes in your planting scheme once they have done their thing. They will grow in pots, greenhouses and conservatories and last for several weeks as flowering house plants.
It would be fair to say that chrysanthemums suffer their share of plant ailments. I shall not expand on these here, except to say they are no more onerous to deal with than the afflictions bestowed upon roses or dahlias. It does not help to grow them on their own, where pests and diseases spread quickly from plant to plant. Much healthier to grow chrysanthemums in a mixed border if possible or otherwise remain vigilant. Lifting and replanting annually does afford the opportunity to move plants around and stop any nasties from building up in the soil.
Next spring, put aside any snobbery or cynicism you may feel towards chrysanthemums and plant a few in your cutting garden, herbaceous border or in pots. They will cause you very little trouble and reward with armfuls of flowers come autumn. Here are five of my favourites for general garden cultivation:
Chrysanthemum ‘E.H. Wilson’ – This is a wonderful old variety and an absolute ‘must have’. The original, wild-collected plant is thought to have been introduced by plant hunter Ernest Wilson in around 1905. From October, sweetly scented flowers are produced in great profusion. Their colour and form are more suggestive of spring than autumn. A few sprays will lift any bouquet or arrangement. Being single, the flowers readily attract bees and butterflies. Chrysanthemum ‘E.H. Wilson’ is quite the most lovely plant and well suited to more casual or wild-looking planting schemes.
Chrysanthemum ‘Percy Salter’ – One of the earlier Chrysanthemums to flower on our allotment this year, ‘Percy Salter’ is a lovely outdoor spray chrysanthemum with peachy-yellow flowers that last for weeks in a vase. Individual blooms remind me of sea anemones.
Chrysanthemum ‘Spider Bronze’ – fireworks in flower form, spider chrysanthemums are my absolute favourites. As I write, the allotment is all ablaze with this fabulous cultivar. The flowers open a smoky, pale paprika, becoming more golden as they age. The plants are tall and require strong stakes to keep the flower stems upright; the reward is that they can be cut very low down and placed in your tallest vase at home. If you like the flower form but not the colour, ‘Tula Purple’, pictured at the end of this post, is a good alternative.
Chrysanthemum ‘Dixter Orange’ – we purchased this chrysanthemum from Dyson’s, a nursery specialising in salvias here in Kent. The plants were a little leggy, but they settled down fast. Returning this year (it’s completely winter hardy) they formed a neat, low, well-branched hedge, without any intervention from us. Then came the flowers, appearing for months on end, finally fizzling out in mid-November. A glowing copper orange, the flower stems are too short for cutting so ‘Dixter Orange’ is best grown where it can be enjoyed in situ. Endorsed by Christopher Lloyd himself, this chrysanthemum requires no further recommendation from me.
Chrysanthemum ‘Burnt Orange’ – it’s a tragedy that many of the chrysanthemums listed here are available from only one or two nurseries in the UK. I hope the tide will soon turn and we will have as much choice as we do of dahlias. ‘Burnt Orange’ is a beauty, carrying flowers the colour of a strand of saffron, quilled and deep red at one end, flaring into ochre-yellow at the tips. The flowers are small and delicate enough to dilute the bulk of larger blooms in a border or vase. Unusually for a chrysanthemum, the foliage is also pretty. Plant generously for picking. TFG.