Thank You Mum

Colorful chrysanthemums are woven throughout the global history of flowers and Ryan Gainey’s personal history
chrysanthemum flower arrangement
An arrangement of ‘Ryan’s Rainbow’ beautifies an outdoor table and shows the variation in color found in one chrysanthemum flower variety.

Like many of the plants in my garden there is a story, and so there is with chrysanthemums—where they came from and how I use them in my garden and in the making of other gardens.

The chrysanthemum was brought to Europe in the 17th century from its home of origin, China. Linnaeus, the father of botanical nomenclature, named this genus from the Greek word “chrysous” meaning “golden” (the color of the original flowers) and “anthem” meaning “flower.” They were first cultivated in China as a flowering plant as far back as the 15th century B.C. It was introduced into Japan in the 8th century A.D. where it was adopted by the emperor as his official seal. Japan celebrates the chrysanthemum flower in an annual “Festival of Happiness.”

chrysanthemum flower variety
This collection from Erin Benzakein’s Skagit Valley farm, Floret Flowers, shows the modern chrysanthemum flower’s remarkable diversity of form. Photo by Joy Prouty

Chrysanthemums these days have been hybridized and are quite different from the wild one, which was a single flower. They appear in various forms—daisyesque, pompoms, and buttons. The exhibition varieties include standards (tree forms which I grew from seed one year and trained to trees), fans, hanging baskets, topiary, bonsai, and cascades. This illustrates the desire man has always had to improve upon and manipulate Nature. Many conservatories have lavish displays of “mums” in the fall. I have visited the displays at Longwood Gardens in Philadelphia and Callaway Gardens in Pine Mountain, Georgia.

Chrysanthemums are photoperiod sensitive, which means they require short days and long nights to set bud and bloom. Understanding this natural phenomenon has allowed commercial growers to produce greenhouse-grown flowers as cuts and potted plants. Black cloth stretched over the growing benches or beds lures the plants into thinking fall has arrived, tricking them into bloom. This makes them available all year around. I first experienced this practice as a student in Horticulture at Clemson.

When I was a child gardener living in a rural community in Hartsville, South Carolina, three ladies—Mrs. Faile, Mrs. Flowers and Mrs. Floyd—served as my mentors. They all grew the single, ordinary-type chrysanthemum in their flowerbeds or in rows with their vegetables. Perhaps in their wisdom that knew that this pretty, humble flower produced pyrethrum—a natural insect repellent. They also supply certain Lepidoptera (butterflies) with a food source for their larvae. Those childhood memories and the distinct smell of the lovely flowers became synonymous with fall for me.

Aster ‘Rachel Jackson’ with ‘Ryan’s Rainbow’ and ‘Ryan’s Yellow’ arranged in a Roseville pottery collection called “Bushberry Blue”

In the last number of years, I have collected and received several colors of single chrysanthemums from friends. ‘Ryan’s Yellow’ was a gift from Harriet Spencer, a gardener who retrieved this pale single flower type from her grandmother’s garden. I grew it in the 1980s and trained them up posts to a height of five feet. The combination of this with aster ‘Rachel Jackson’, a purplish, fall-blooming aster collected from Jackson’s garden at the Hermitage in Tennessee provides an amazing color combination for a fall border. I first achieved this combination for my friend Peter Thevenot in the making of his garden in Decatur, Tennessee. Sam Flowers of Dothan, Alabama, gave me ‘Ryan’s Pink’ and it easily shares the spotlight when planted with the aforementioned aster.

chrysanthemum flower arrangement
An arrangement of store-bought and ‘Thanksgiving Day’ chrysanthemums with bittersweet in Ryan Gainey’s garden.

chrysanthemum flower garden
‘Ryan’s Rainbow’ foregrounds an intricate quilt with a chrysanthemum design.

Josie Starnes retrieved a bittersweet orange mum from her husband’s gravesite and passed it to me, my newest selection. I found it blooming on Thanksgiving Day in her garden and have named it for this celebration.

I planted several plants in a row in my vegetable plot and that fall when they bloomed, even though I propagated all from the same plant, to my very pleasant surprise, each plant of the 12 displayed a different color and all single daisy types. ‘Ryan’s Rainbow’ seemed a fitting name. My frequent visits to see if they were ready to cut and share was like a trip down the yellow brick road with Dorothy.

One must keep one’s eyes and heart open for these opportunities of seeing and sharing thus preserving our garden heritage. My hope for you is that you will grow and come to love these cottage garden flowers as I do. Plant your own rainbow.

By Ryan Gainey | Photography by Alecia Lauren

The late garden designer and author Ryan Gainey wrote a regular column in Flower for many years, sharing his remarkable gardening knowledge and stories.

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