The Tuesday after the passing of Hurricane Ian found me in pursuit of plugs of garden vegetables including broccoli, cauliflower, kale and collards. Starting all of these from seed is easy but plugs give you a jump start. Tate’s Feed and Seed in downtown Brunswick was expecting a fresh delivery that afternoon but had a few plants worthy of taking home. Lowes and Home Depot had minimum inventory, all of which was in bad shape. Ace Garden Center wasn’t expecting any deliveries until the end of the week. Rather than walk away empty-handed, I browsed the plants coming off the delivery trucks. My goodness, the amount of chrysanthemum plants in all fashions of color and flower form was mind-boggling. Although generally a single season plant in our coastal zone 9A, I couldn’t resist grabbing a few.
Chrysanthemums are one of the most popular fall flowering plants in the United States, where in many climatic zones they are perennials and come back year after year. The flowers are symbolic of friendship, happiness and well-being. Chrysanthemums are members of the daisy family, Asteraceae, one of the largest botanical families. Use of the flower in China dates back to the 15th century B.C. where it was used as a culinary herb. Somewhere between the 6th and 8th century A.D., it made its way into Japanese culture, embraced by the emperor as his crest and official seal. Individuals who had served the Japanese nation were decorated with the Supreme Order of the Chrysanthemum. By the 17th century A. D., the flower made its way into Europe where it became a symbol of death and used at funerals. In some countries, it is still the most common flower on grave sites.
However, when it came to use in the United States during Colonial times, it regained its positive reputation, rapidly becoming the “Queen of Fall Flowers.” My memories go back to fall football, where single stemmed cut mums of 6-8” in diameter were bought from stadium vendors as tokens of affection and given to lucky girls. The mums would have a smiley face on them or the letters OSU. I received a few in those youthful days. This tradition of football mums started in Texas in the 1930s. Today, I don’t attend football games but a bouquet of cut chrysanthemum flowers is one of my favorite long-lasting arrangements, and can often be found in a vase on the dining room table.
When I was teaching horticulture at The Ohio State University, chrysanthemums were on the list of the seven top perennials for a Zone 5 garden. Plants thrive when placed in a sunny spot where the plants can receive a minimum of 6 hours of sunlight during the growing season. Because they are short-day plants, flower initiation and development will begin only as the nights grow longer (at least 11-12 hours of uninterrupted darkness). That being said, research has proven that temperature can have an even greater impact on garden mums. Cooler evenings will promote earlier flowering in some climates. We had to pinch off early buds on our garden mums in Ohio in June and July to make more compact plants that would have greater blooms come fall. These concerns are not a problem in the coastal south, where we buy our plants for use during this time of year, with multiple flower buds on them. Rather than being grown in the ground, we leave them in containers, placing them in prominent areas on porches, front entry ways and other locations. After the blooms begin to fade, plants are generally discarded and replaced by poinsettias, cyclamen and amaryllis as the holiday season progresses.
Can one successfully grow mums in our climate? Yes and no. It’s all about location. On the barrier islands and spots east of I-95, garden mums generally can’t tolerate tropical heat and summer humidity unless a microclimate is provided where conditions are cooler and less humid. As you move further inland and up into north Georgia, the climatic zone changes from Zone 9 to Zone 8 and then Zone 7, indicating a 10 degree decrease in average winter temperatures with each zone change. The cooler the climate, the better chances are for successfully growing a chrysanthemum as a perennial.
When purchasing a mum at a local garden center in our area, it has been my experience that many plants are excessively root-bound. It’s difficult to keep these well-watered. If possible, I knock the plants out to be sure roots are healthy and not tightly wrapped around the pot. If roots are healthy but the plant is root-bound, I will take it home, lightly score the root ball to separate the roots and place the plant in a larger container filled with good potting soil – even if it’s only for 4-6 weeks or so. It helps the plant avoid wilting and allows for longer lasting blooms.
On a final note, “mum’s the word” is a popular English idiom referring to “being silent; do not reveal.” In the case of chrysanthemums, it’s just the opposite. Mums are worth talking about! Happy gardening!