Celebrating Chrysanthemum Day

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A Chrysanthemum Day show in Japan. Source: japanesehealthylife.wordpress.com

Chrysanthemum Day (菊の節句or Kiku no Sekku) is one of the five ancient sacred festivals of Japan. Also known as the Festival of Happiness, it is celebrated on the 9th day of the 9th month. Originally, this would have been the 9th day of the 9th lunar month, placing the festival at various dates in October, but now the Gregorian calendar is used, so the Festival takes place on September 9th.

The first Festival took place in 910, when the Japanese Imperial Court held its first chrysanthemum show. Chrysanthemums are the symbol of the Imperial House of Japan and the monarchy is known as the Chrysanthemum Throne. Also, Japan’s highest order is the Supreme Order of the Chrysanthemum.

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Part of a Chrysanthemum Show in Japan. Source: www.japantoptobottom.com

Even today, Chrysanthemum festivals, with elaborate displays of potted and cut chrysanthemums, are held across Japan to coincide with Chrysanthemum Day.

When China celebrates its “Double Ninth Festival” the 9th day of 9th lunar month, therefore in October, chrysanthemums are also feted in many areas. Also, people traditionally eat chrysanthemum cakes or drinks made of chrysanthemums. In China as in Japan, chrysanthemums are considered auspicious flowers denoting longevity and eternal youth.

The First Chrysanthemum

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The original gold chrysanthemum (Chrysanthemum indicum) is rarely grown these days other than as a medicinal plant. Source: KENPEI, Wikimedia Commons

The original chrysanthemum was Chrysanthemum indicum. The genus name is from Greek and means gold (chrysos) flower (anthemon), because of the bright yellow color of the inflorescence. Both the Japanese and Chinese names for the flower also translate as “gold flower.”

It’s a perennial found in mountainous areas of Asia, including India, China and Japan. It naturally blooms as day lengths shorten, therefore sometime between August and October, depending on latitude. It has long been used as a medicinal plant, treating respiratory diseases, fever, difficult menses and flatulence, and is edible as well, with young sprouts and petals being eaten in salads or baked into cakes, while leaves are brewed to make chrysanthemum tea and liqueur, considered festive and salutary drinks.

In spite of that, many people react negatively to chrysanthemum sap and may develop contact dermatitis after extended exposure to the plant. This is an occupational hazard of florists, nursery workers, and gardeners. And chrysanthemums are considered toxic to many animals, including dogs, cats and horses.

Tradition aside, might I suggest you really shouldn’t be eating chrysanthemums unless you know how to properly prepare them!

Hybrid Chrysanthemums

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Exhibition mums are grown for their enormous, variously shaped flowers. They’re designed for pot culture, not as garden plants. Source: japan-local-guide.com.

The original gold chrysanthemum was crossed with many other species, leading to today’s garden chrysanthemum or garden mum: C. x morifolium (Dendranthema grandiflora). There are now chrysanthemums in a wide range of sizes, colors and forms, some for garden use, others grown strictly as show flowers.

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Hardy garden mums (Chrysanthemum x morifolium). Source: Eric Waggoner, http://www.pinterest.ca

The original gold chrysanthemum (C. indicum) is only moderately frost hardy and can be grown from warm temperature areas to tropical ones (hardiness zones 7 to 12). Many garden mums (C. x morifolium) are not much more resistant to cold, limiting their use to moderate climates. However, much hardier garden mums have also been bred, some tough enough to thrive in zone 3. You can read more about them in the article Chrysanthemums for Cold Climates.

Traditions Vary

While chrysanthemums are celebrated in Japan and indeed, throughout Asia (China, Vietnam, etc.) and there are chrysanthemum festivals in fall throughout North America and Great Britain (Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, hosts the largest American display of exhibition chrysanthemums from late October to mid November each year), plus bouquets of chrysanthemums are widely offered for all occasions, they are considered a symbol of death in France and Belgium as well as in a few other European countries, such as Italy, Spain, Croatia, Hungary and Poland.

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All Saints Day at the Cimetière Père Lachaise, Paris. Source: Alain Delavie, ohbythewayblog.blogspot.com

This is because there is a long tradition in these countries of placing pots of chrysanthemums on graves and of decorating coffins with cut chrysanthemums on All Saints Day (November 1st). As a result, the distinctive odor of the chrysanthemum flower is often said to “smell like death” in these countries. Offering a bouquet of chrysanthemums as a gift would be considered a serious faux pas in France!

Well, at least the Japanese have no phobias about chrysanthemums. Let’s wish them a happy Chrysanthemum Day!

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6 Perennials for Spectacular Fall Color

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Cushion mums are as spectacular in bloom as any summer perennial. Photo: Rachel Kramer, flickr

You thought the gardening season was over by September and all you had to do was hang up your gardening tools? Think again! Thanks to climate change, in most regions autumns are longer and warmer than ever and that has extended the flowering season well into November, often even December.

Bulbs (colchicums and autumn crocuses), shrubs (several hydrangeas, seven-son flower [Heptacodium] and common witch-hazel) and many annuals (pansies, snapdragons, hybrid sweet alyssums, etc.) will continue to bloom right through the fall, even sailing through the first light frosts. They won’t stop until a truly hard frost hits. In fact, some annuals, like ornamental cabbage, don’t even start to show color until September. But there are more fall-flowering varieties among perennials than in any other group.

Here are six of the best!

Garden Mums

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Hundreds of years of hybridizing have led to the popular “cushion mum,” with a dense, dome-shaped habit and hundreds of flowers. Photo: pixabay

There are currently about 20 species of Chrysanthemum, commonly called chrysanthemums or just mums, and all are fall bloomers. However, just because they are sold locally doesn’t mean they are hardy in your region.

Many merchants make little difference between florist chrysanthemums (frost-tender varieties) and garden mums (hardy varieties) and sell pots of both in the fall. The two, after all, belong to the same species (Chrysanthemum × morifolium, formerly C. × grandiflorum and Dendrathema × grandiflorum), a complex hybrid with both hardy and subtropical species in its background. Florist and garden mums may therefore appear to be identical, but florist varieties are often only hardy to zone 8 whereas hardy garden mums are solid in gardens as cold as zone 3. That’s a huge difference!

So, how can you tell the two apart in a store display?

In box stores, supermarkets or other non-specialist venues, you can’t. Chances are all the mums they sell are florist varieties, shipped in from the South in full bloom for rapid fall sales. They’re essentially annuals in most gardens. However, garden centers and plant nurseries  usually offer both garden and florist types. To find out which is which, ask about guarantees. Truly perennial mums will have a 12-month guarantee; tender florist mums won’t.

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Hardy chrysanthemum Mammoth Red Daisy is a big one, as large as many shrubs! Photo: Ball Horticultural Company

There are some very good garden mums (i.e. hardy cushion mums) out there, varieties known for their resistance to extreme cold, and this includes the Morden, Minn, Firecracker and Mammoth™ series (the latter was formerly known as the My Favorite™ series and that name may still be used by some nurseries). The four series offer single and/or double varieties in a wide range of colors: yellow, orange, pink, purple, white, etc. The Morden and Minn mums are dwarf plants (12-18 inches x 18-24 inches/30-45 cm x 45-60 cm) covered with flowers from September to frost, while the Mammoth series mums are taller and wide: 3 to 4 feet (100-120 cm) tall and wide. Firecracker series mums (Power Surge®, Showbiz®, Suncatcher®, etc.) are of intermediate size.

All varieties mentioned are hardy to zone 3. Sun or partial shade.

Heirloom Mums

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The most popular heirloom mum is ‘Clara Curtis’. Photo: rosekennedygreenway.org

There are also heirloom mums, also called old-fashioned mums or rubellum mums. They’re a different species: Chrysanthemum × rubellum, formerly C. zawadskii latilobum.

This group includes the well-known ‘Clara Curtis’ (pink, zone 3), ‘Duchess of Edinburgh’ (dark pink, area 4) and ‘Mary Stoker’ (yellow, zone 3), plus half a dozen others. All produce simple daisylike flowers with a yellow center. They reach about 18 to 30 inches (45-75 cm) in height and diameter, depending on the cultivar, but have more finely cut leaves than garden mums and certainly don’t form the dense mounds typical of cushion mums. Instead they have a much more open habit and are even inclined to wander a bit. They’re not really invasive, though, as it’s easy to pull out stragglers if they go too far.

Zone 3. Sun or partial shade.

You can read more about hardy mums here: Chrysanthemums for Cold Climates.

Asters

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New York aster ‘Patricia Ballard’. Photo: dorsetperennials.co.uk

North American fields and forests are full of wild asters in shades of violet and white, but there also are many cultivated asters to be discovered, including New England asters (Aster novae-angliae, now Symphotrichum novae-angliae) and New York asters (A. novi-belgii, now S. novi-belgii). They have larger flowers in a much wider color range than wild asters. They come in shades of violet (so-called blue), purple, pink, red, and white, often with semi-double or double flowers.

Until recently, most asters were tall to medium-height plants for the back or the middle of the garden. A. n-a. ‘Harrington’s Pink’ (pink, 48 inches x 24 inches/120 cm x 60 cm) and A. n-b. ‘Patricia Ballard’ (dark pink, 36 inches x 15 to 20 inches/90 cm x 40-50 cm) are examples of these popular taller varieties.

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Aster ‘Purple Dome’. Photo: Footprints Plants, LLC

Dwarf asters, although often sold under the botanical name A. dumosus (a name that really belongs to a summer-flowering Eurasian species), are actually just smaller selections of A. novae-angliae and A. novi-belgii. A. n-a. ‘Purple Dome’, for example, is popular, forming a rounded dome 16 to 20 inches (40-50 cm) in height and width with purple flowers. The Wood’s series of dwarf asters is similar, but comes in other colors.

Fall asters are hardy to zone 4, sometimes in zone 3. Sun or partial shade.

Goldenrod

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Solidago rugosa ‘Fireworks’. Photo: F. D. Richards, flickr

There is a surprising dichotomy between the attitude of North American and European gardeners towards goldenrod (Solidago spp.). North Americans tend to see goldenrods, which are native to their continent, as weeds and want little to do with them. Europeans, on the other hand, for whom they are exotic plants coming from the New World, adore them!

I find it almost criminal to malign these gorgeous perennials with their rich yellow flowers simply because they’re natives when, in fact, they are among the best fall perennials. True enough, Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) is highly invasive species in gardens, both through seeds and wandering rhizomes, but the others are clump-forming and stay put. If you don’t believe me, try S. × ‘Crown of Rays’ (23-27 inches x 18-23 inches/60-70 cm x 45-60 cm), S. × ‘Dansolitlem’ Little Lemon® (12-18 inches x 12-23 inches/30-45 cm x 30-45 cm) or S. rugosa ‘Fireworks’ (36-48 inches x 36 inches/90 to 120 cm x 90 cm), all with stunning feathery yellow flowers. Beautiful!

Zone 3. Sun or partial shade.

Autumn Sedum

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Sedum ‘Herbsfreude’. Photo: laidbackgardener.blog

Autumn sedum, also called autumn stonecrop, showy sedum or showy stonecrop (cultivars and hybrids of Sedum spectabile [Hylotelephium spectabile] and related species), is a fairly low-growing plant (rarely more than 2 feet/60 cm tall), with succulent stems and leaves, often bluish green. The star-shaped flowers are produced in dense masses, a bit like colored cauliflower, and come in shades of pink, red or white, more rarely, pale yellow. They’re one of the last fall feeding stations for butterflies.

S. ‘Herbsfreude’ (‘Autumn Joy’), 12-24 inches x 18-24 inches (60 cm x 45-60 cm), is best known and bears pink flowers turning brownish red. S. ‘Autumn Fire’ is similar, but more compact (20 inches x 18-24 inches/50 cm x 45-60 cm). A sturdier plant, it doesn’t tend to flop under the weight of its flowers the way ‘Herbstfreude’ may do. S. ‘Purple Emperor’ (16 inches x 18-24 inches/40 cm x 45-60 cm) is just one of many autumn sedums with dark purple leaves and pink flowers, while ‘Elsie’s Gold’ (16-18 inches x 20-24 inches/40-45 cm x 50-60 cm) has green leaves with yellow to cream edges and magenta flowers. It’s less likely to flop than most other variegated autumn sedums.

There are dozens of other excellent varieties.

Zone 3. Sun.

Turtleheads

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Chelone lyonii ‘Hot Lips’. Photo: laidbackgardener.blog

Turtleheads get their curious name from their flowers, said to look like a turtle’s head. In fact, their botanical name, Chelone, comes from the Greek and also means turtle.

Red turtlehead (Chelone obliqua) is probably the most common variety. It produces a dense, non-invasive clump of solid, perfectly erect stems 24-36 inches tall on a plant 24 inches in diameter (60-90 cm x 60 cm). The very dark green leaves are attractive all summer, but the beautiful deep pink flowers dominate in the fall.

Lyon’s turtlehead (C. lyonii) is very similar in all respects: you can scarcely tell it apart from pink turtlehead (C. obliqua). C. lyonii ‘Hot Lips’ (60-90 cm x 60 cm) is very popular with darker leaves than the species. C. lyonii ‘Tiny Tortuga’ is a dwarf variety only 12-15 inches tall and 8-10 inches in diameter (30-40 cm x 20-25 cm).

Zone 3. Sun or shade.

Maiden Grass

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Miscanthus ‘Purpurascens’. Photo: laidbackgardener.blog

This tall grass (Miscanthus sinensis) is very popular, grown for its arching green ribbon-shaped leaves that become straw-colored in fall and its blooms that start pinkish to become silver-white as fall progresses. Both leaves and flowers hold on right through the winter into spring, offering six months or more of interest.

In zone 7 and above, maiden grass can self-sow and become invasive due to overseeding, so look for near-sterile varieties like ‘Autumn Light’ and ‘Morning Light’ as well as any of the variegated cultivars, as they almost never bloom.

Seeds don’t mature in cold climates, so maiden grass isn’t invasive there … but it might not perform well there either. Its hardiness varies from zone 4 to 6, so make sure you choose one cold resistant enough for your conditions. Also, some cultivars won’t have time to bloom in short-season climates or will only bloom occasionally in years where the summer was extra-long. Unless your local merchant is a specialist in ornamental grasses, you won’t be warned about this fact, so research your plants ahead of time.

Best choices for bloom in colder climates include the extra=hardy Huron series, including M. s. ‘Huron Sunrise’ (6 feet x 2-3 feet/180 cm x 60-90 cm), zone 3, the popular tall cultivar M. s. ‘Silberfeder’ (7-8 feet x 4 feet/200-250 cm x 120 cm), zone 4, and purple maiden grass (M. ‘Purpurascens’), 5 feet x 2 ½ to 3 feet (150 cm x 75-90 cm), also zone 4. The latter offers distinctly coppery foliage color in fall.

Sun or partial shade.

Even More Fall-bloomers

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Add the right fall-bloomers and your autumn garden will come alive!: Photo: autumnasters.co.uk

There are still many other perennials that bloom in fall: boltonia (Boltonia), Japanese anemone (Anemone × hybrida), helenium or sneezeweed (Helenium), bugbane (formerly Cimicifuga, now Actaea), ironweeds (Vernonia), tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), Joe-pye weeds (Eupatorium), perennial sunflowers (Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’ and others), black-eyed susans (Rudbeckia), monkshoods (Aconitum), echinaceas (Echinacea), and many more.

As you can see, with the right choice of plants, there is no reason why your garden can’t be as spectacular in October as it was in July!20170911a-rachel-kramer-flickr

Perennial Doesn’t Mean Eternal

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Gaillardia is beautiful, easy to grow… and very short-lived: 2 or 3 years.

If you’re tearing out your annuals because they bloom only once and replacing them with perennials “because they live forever”, you may be making a mistake. Perennials (planted in appropriate conditions, of course) do live longer than annuals (1 year) and biennials (2 years), but not always that much longer. Some perennials live only 2 or 3 years, others twice that, others a little more, but very few will still be around in 40 years! If I had to estimate the average lifespan of a perennial, I would say 7-8 years.

This is much better than an annual, but you must still be ready to replace perennials from time to time: for the most part, they are not as long-lived as woody plants (trees, shrubs and conifers) most of which will probably outlive the person who planted them.

Short-lived Perennials

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Columbine (Aquilegia) is a short-lived perennial.

There is a particular group of perennials gardeners call short-lived perennials. They’re not exactly biennial, as the latter only bloom once, the second year, then die. Short-lived perennials have the ability to bloom more than once, but often flower the first and second years before they croak. The third year remains a question mark and as for the fourth… forget it!

The problem for the novice gardener is perennials don’t come with a “I’m beautiful but short-lived” label. When a “perennial” disappears after only 2 or 3 years, the disappointed gardener feels guilty and wonders what he did wrong. Yet disappearing after 2 or 3 years is normal for these plants: it’s not your fault.

When you know in advance that a perennial is short-lived, you can take precautions to prolong its existence. For example, taking cuttings ou divisions or multiplying it by seed. If you do this every two years, your short-lived perennial can return year after year.

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Mauves (Malva spp.) are short-lived, but generally maintain themselves through self-sowing.

Many of these short-lived perennials redeem themselves, at least partly, by reseeding spontaneously. Okay, they don’t grow back exactly where you wanted them, but if you are open to the concept of an English-style mixed border, where plants mix freely, you may come to find these ephemeral beauties very interesting. And what a joy they can be for the laidback gardener: they require no care whatsoever, showing up here and there as if by magic!

Although they may not live forever, short-lived perennials still have an advantage over their long-lived cousins: they generally bloom profusely the first year you plant them (many indeed will even bloom the first year from seed if you sow them indoors in early spring), which is certainly not the case of most long-lived perennials, most of which take at least 3 years before giving their best show.

A Few Short-lived Perennials

Here is a list of perennials that are generally short-lived. Those marked with an asterisk (*) tend nevertheless to come back year after year by self-sowing.

  1. Agastache (Agastache spp.) (some species self-sow*)
  2. Baby’s Breath (Gypsophila paniculata)
  3. Blanket Flower (Gaillardia x grandiflora)*
  4. Blue vervaine (Verbena hastata)*
  5. Blue-eyed grass (Sisyrhynchium angustifolium)*
  6. Brown-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia trilobata)*
  7. Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis)
  8. Columbine (Aquilegia spp.)*
  9. Coral Bells (Heuchera spp.) (some cultivars are short-lived)
  10. Dame’s rocket (Hesperis matronalis)*
  11. Delphinium (Delphinium spp.) (longer-lived in cool climates)
  12. Echinacea (Echinacea spp.) (some cultivars are short-lived)
  13. English daisy (Bellis perennis)
  14. Garden mum (Chrysanthemum x morifolium) (some newer cultivars are long-lived)
  15. Gloriosa daisy or black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)*
  16. Hybrid Tulip (Tulipa spp.)
  17. Iceland Poppy (Papaver nudicaule)
  18. Knautia (Knautia spp.)*
  19. Lupine (Lupinus x russellii)
  20. Maltese Cross (Lychnis chalcedonica)*
  21. Mauve (Malva spp.)*
  22. Orange jewelweed (Impatiens capensis)*
  23. Painted Daisy (Tanacetum coccineum)
  24. Perennial Flax (Linum perenne)*
  25. Pincushion Flower (Scabiosa spp.)
  26. Pinks (Dianthus spp.) (some species self-sow)*
  27. Rose campion (Lychnis coronaria)*
  28. Shasta Daisy (Leucanthemum x superbum) (‘Becky’ is long-lived)
  29. Tickseed (Coreopsis grandiflora)
  30. White corydalis (Corydalis ochroleuca, now Pseudofumaria alba)*