The versatile chrysanthemum

Garden by Mike Lascelle

  • Apr. 16, 2011 11:00 a.m.
The versatile chrysanthemum

Most of us associate chrysanthemums with the lovely but much overused potted flowers that we cram into the fall planters by the front door just around Thanksgiving – and yet for all its pedestrian appeal, the chrysanthemum has enjoyed a long and venerable history.

This perennial plant has literally been cultivated for more than 3,000 years now, starting in China, where it was called ‘Ju’, a reference to the ‘gathering together’ of the petals in a spherical form. There, it was revered as one of the ‘Four Noble Ones’ representing the seasons along with plum blossom (winter), orchid (spring) and bamboo (summer).

Although the Chinese closely guarded the chrysanthemum as a national treasure, it would eventually arrive in Japan sometime around 386 AD. It was there that the forerunners of the large exhibition types were bred in the 9th century Imperial gardens of Emperor Uda.

The chrysanthemum so enraptured the Japanese populace that it became the national flower in 1910 and it continues to serve as the imperial seal of Japan.

The first chrysanthemums arrived in Europe in 1789, when a French merchant, Pierre Louis Blancard, brought three varieties back from China with only one, ‘Old Purple’, surviving – that cultivar reached Kew Gardens in 1796.

It then caught the attention of the Royal Horticultural Society, which in turn commissioned famed botanist Robert Fortune to scour China for new varieties. On his return in 1846, he brought back several chrysanthemum cultivars, including the Chusan daisy, which is reputed to be the parent of all the pompom forms.

Chrysanthemums have also enjoyed local favour for many decades, with Haney once boasting a popular ‘ladies only’ chrysanthemum club.

Prior to the introduction of poinsettias, potted white chrysanthemums were the preferred indoor decor for the Christmas season, and Brown Brothers Greenhouses (situated where Ridge Meadows Hospital now stands) literally grew thousands of them to ship throughout the Fraser Valley.

In regards to this plant’s versatility, here are just a few of its many uses: tea made from Chrysanthemum x morifolium; indicum is an ancient Chinese herbal remedy still used today to cure sore throats, reduce fevers, aid liver detoxification and clear irritated eyes. The young foliage of Shungiku or edible chrysanthemum (Leucanthemum coronarium) adds a slightly bitter edge to salad greens, soups, stir-fries, omelettes and is a key ingredient in Cantonese cuisine; many of our organic-based pesticides use pyrethrins, a derivative of the plant Pyrethrum (formerly chrysanthemum) cinerariifolium, without which we might still be left using those nasty organophosphates.

Despite its practical uses, the chrysanthemum remains the second most popular flower in the world, deferring only to the rose.

Now, if you are wondering why I’m suddenly writing about a popular autumn flower in April, it’s because there is a conspiracy afoot.

Enter Stanley J. Stanley, a local businessman and Pitt Meadows resident who came to his love of this flower in the most masculine of ways: courting his future wife Valerie, whom he married in 1961.

His English father-in-law grew prize-winning show chrysanthemums, which totally fascinated Stan, but it was a hobby he would have to defer due to the demands of three children, a busy family life and work.

Eighteen months ago, Stan decided that it was time to revisit his old passion and start growing chrysanthemums, the only problem being that of the 26 clubs that once existed there was only one left – the Point Grey Chrysanthemum Society (also known as the Vancouver Chrysanthemum Club), which was formed in 1937.

While this is still a great club, members meet at VanDusen Botanical Gardens in Vancouver, and it is a rather long commute. So Stan is planning to start a new chrysanthemum club here in Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows.

He is hoping to attract at least 10 members, people with whom he can share the art of growing spectacular show chrysanthemums – flowers that often last two to three weeks as cuts and come in every colour (including ‘Pot Black’) but blue.

I encourage you to visit him at the Pitt Meadows Community Gardens (Bonson Road) on Easter Sunday, April 24, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., when he will be selling starter show chrysanthemums (many of them quite rare) for the rock-bottom price of $3.50 each.

For those of you who might want to get head start on things, the Vancouver Chrysanthemum Club will be holding its B.C. rooted cuttings sale at VanDusen Botanical Gardens on Saturday, April 16, from 9 a.m. to noon.

 

Mike Lascelle is a local nursery manager and gardening author. Email him at hebe_acer@hotmail.com. Check out his blog here.