Chrysanthemums, or mums, as they are affectionately called by those who grow them, have been cultivated around the world for many thousands of years, and according to efloras.org, 500 cultivars were already listed in a Chinese account by the year 1650. Native to Asia and Northeastern Europe, the genus now contains thousands of showy modern cultivars. The US National Chrysanthemum Society (mums.org) defines 13 different classes of mums based on shape and petal pattern, including spider, anemone, spoon, quill and reflex, whose petals sweep beautifully downwards and overlap, similar to bird plumage.
Mum exhibitions, where gardeners compete for prize blooms in different catagories, happen worldwide and are particularly popular in China, where several species (called Ju Hua in Chinese medicine) have long-standing medicinal uses. Wild chrysanthemum flowers bear little resemblance to modern varietals but their small, faint yellow or whiteish blooms have a classical, untamed appeal. As a remedy, both flowers and stems have a cooling effect on the body and are used for conditions that create heat and inflammation, such as headaches, sore throats and fevers associated with seasonal flus, swollen, puffy eyes and acne. A traditional preparation was made by soaking flowers in rice wine, and leaves and flowers can be steeped for tea.
Exhibitions happen in autumn, when the flowers are in bloom, providing a final starburst of color before the season turns cold and dark. In colder climates, they often come to life even as the first snows dust the ground. This is why mums are the official November flower, and perhaps why they are associated with death and mourning in many European and Asian countries, as their blooms coincide with a time of year when many cultures honor the dead.
Fresh Chrysanthemum plants in a burst of fall colors, to grace your front door or holiday table, are readily available at most supermarkets, but they are also hardy and easy to grow at home. They can be grown from seed or cuttings, and starts are popular at most nurseries. According to gardnersnet.com, they prefer mostly sun and well-drained soil, and have shallow roots so keep them watered near the surface. Growth can be pinched back to keep a bush-like appearance, and left free in the Fall as they are about to bloom. Fertilizing with a boost of phosphorous at this stage will also encourage full, happy blossoms. Cultivars (divided into classes) come in all manner of outrageous names such as Rage, Shock, Fantasy, Cindy and Yoko Ono.