Rediscovering the Culture of Fancy Chrysanthemums

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Collector chrysanthemums include many forms including recurved, spider and anemone flowered types.

The chrysanthemum, once the most popular flower in the world, today is not only the most common of cut flowers, it is also globally the most common potted flowering plant. It has been grown as far back as the 15th century B.C.E. in China, where the plant was not only eaten but also used medicinally as well as for decorative flowers. The ancient emperors likely never could have imagined the omnipresence and commonality of today’s mums. Fall sales of the common “hardy mum,” now available at every garden center and nursery, are familiar to all as sidekicks for fall displays with pumpkins, cornstalks and hay bales.

Coral Reef is a large brilliantly colored spider mum which can form enormous flowers if stems are disbudded and allowed to form a single, terminal flower bud.

Yet the chrysanthemum offers so much more to gardeners than just those mounded potted fall-display plants seen everywhere. With just a bit of skill and patience, the chrysanthemum offers a tremendous world of diversity and beauty.  Varieties are organized into 13 classes, including those with spoon-shaped petals, anemone-like flowered forms with dense centers, pompom types and some exotically striking, such as the huge, Japanese spider-flowered forms and the odd “brush and thistle” flowered types.

Few cut flowers are truly brown, but the Anemone Flowered form Seatons Ruby offers this perfectly autumnal tint for the confidant floral arranger.

If you are interested in  rediscovering the exhibition chrysanthemum by growing a few, here is a step-by-step guide that will get you started with trying some of these more exotic varieties — the sorts that you will never, ever find at your local nursery or garden center.

When trained using traditional methods like pinching and disbudding, exhibition chrysanthemums can creat enormous flowers and a spectacular fall display for your porch, greenhouse or garden.

Things You’ll Need

  • Exhibition chrysanthemum rooted cuttings (see sources)
  • 3-inch pots and 10-inch pots, one for each cutting
  • Sterilized professional potting mix
  • Water-soluble fertilizer, 10-10-10
  • 6-foot tall bamboo canes, 3/4 inch in diameter
  • Hemp twine
  • Raised bed
  • Greenhouse, sunroom or enclosed porch

Rooted chrysanthemum cuttings via mail-order are potted into 3 inch pots in June.

1. Plant new chrysanthemum cuttings into 3-inch pots.

Chrysanthemums are always raised by cuttings, and this is true for both hardy garden mums as well as the exhibition and cut-flower types.  Cuttings can be ordered for growing in the spring, with nurseries offering rooted cuttings timed for proper planting in your area. If you have a greenhouse, cuttings can be planted into 4-inch pots upon arrival in March or April. Others will need to time cutting for shipment when frost-free planting offers a safer environment, usually late May or early June. Plant any later and you will miss the window for proper development, as Chrysanthemums are day-length sensitive. Plant well before the summer solstice.

Established chrysanthemum cuttings are potted-up into 10 inch fiber pots, a single plant to each pot, and then have their stem-tip pinched out to stimulate the plant to form three main stems.

2. Repot chrysanthemum plants into 10-inch final display pots.

Repot young transplants into 10- to 12-inch pots (one plant per pot) after their roots begin to emerge from the bottom of the 3-inch pot.  This should happen after about three weeks. At this time, the plants are ready for their first pinching. Simply pinch out the growing point on each cutting to induce branching. Tall varieties such as spider mums, football mums, incurved and recurved standards all produce their largest flowers if allowed to form only one to three flowers per plant. A reasonable method is to allow one rooted cutting to branch into three stems, with each stem limited to one large flower. As such, each pot will also need one to three tall bamboo canes for support.

Few cut flowers are truly brown, but the Anemone Flowered form Seatons Ruby offers this perfectly autumnal tint for the confidant floral arranger.

Timing tip: Exhibition chrysanthemums have a very long growing season, with many beginning their flowering period in early October and a few finishing as late as November. If your first frost date is earlier than your varieties’ bloom period, you will need to prepare a place for the potted plants to mature, such as a frost-free area of a closed-in porch, a sunroom or a greenhouse.

Set into the vegetable garden for the summer growing period, exhibition chrysanthemums are staked with 6 foot tall bamboo canes which are secured into the ground to prevent plants from tipping over during strong summer storms. When flower bud begin to form, plants can be relocated into a more protected area away from early frosts such as a porch, or near the house.

3. Throughout the summer, relocate pots to the garden bed, stake them and fertilize weekly.

Some people may choose to plant their chrysanthemums directly into raised beds, but most plants will still need to be lifted before they bloom. Still, this was a classic method for hundreds of years, and plants transplant easily. I find it more convenient to use inexpensive fiber pots, as I can shove strong stakes directly though the bottom into the ground, making the plants easier to handle and sturdier during summer storms. Because chrysanthemums are heavy feeders, fertilize plants weekly with a balanced water-soluble fertilizer (10-10-10).

To keep plants focused on forming the strongest stems, all additional shoots are pinched out just above each leaf. The goal is to keep each plant limited to three main stems, each tied to a stake.

4. Pinch and stake plants to produce three stems per plant.

Continue to pinch out side stems and to tie stems to stakes every few inches. These tasks are rather relaxing and not as time intensive as they sound. You simply pinch or snap off the soft, tender growth emerging above each leaf where a new stem wants to grow. The ultimate goal is to keep the entire plant limited to three main, strong stems.

As flower buds begin to form in late summer, keeping plants restricted to a single flower bud per stem is essential if you want the largest flowers possible. Any additional flower buds beyond the primary central bud must also be pinched out, a term known as disbudding.

5. Disbud plants to produce a single, large flower bud per stem.

Disbudding means that the grower removes all but the largest flower bud in an effort to focus all of the plant’s energy on producing the largest flower possible. By late August, you will quickly discover why the 6-foot tall canes were recommended, as plants begin to reach their full height and start to bud. At this time, the careful task of disbudding will begin. Immature flower buds are very fragile and often form in tight clusters.  Proper timing is key here. Disbud too soon, and you risk damaging the largest central bud. You will see that a plant generally forms one central bud with a cluster of smaller buds below it.

If you accidentally remove the large central bud, don’t fret. Just leave one of the side buds to replace it.

A properly disbudded chrysanthemum stem, with only the central flower bud remaining. It's September, and from this point onward, all water and nutrients will be focused on this single flower bud.

Throughout late summer and autumn, continue to disbud all unnecessary buds, and keep side stems pinched off of the main stems. Some will even begin to form at the bottom of the plant again. Remove these as well. As the primary flower bud begins to mature, the formation of side buds will begin to slow down.

Properly disbudded flowers can reach dinner-plate size, and each will require a strong cane or stake. When displayed together the effect can be spectacular.

The rewards of disbudding are evident when flowers bloom. Disbudding may seem silly at first, as you may think that you will want as many flowers as possible, but it is necessary if you want large, perfect flowers worthy of a conservatory display or for entering into a local chrysanthemum society show. If you choose not to disbud, that is OK too. Your plants will produce smaller flowers but more of them.

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Pinching tip: Pinching is not a task required for all varieties, as some are bred to produce multiple flowers on a stem (such as spray-flowered mums, pompoms and spoon mums). In fact, if you are a flower arranger, you may wish to grow most any variety, as botanic gardens and Japanese gardens sometimes have fall displays with magnificent exhibition mums of all sorts of classic types, some cascading down like waterfalls, others raised in traditional Japanese methods that form symmetrical domes and grids of large, perfectly manicured flowers. Miniature types may not need pinching at all unless you want to train them into a topiary or bonsai shape, as chrysanthemum fans share heirloom bonsai varieties.

Heather James is a beautiful chrysanthemum classified as a Regular Incurve by the American Chrysanthemum Society. Blooms in this class are formally incurved to produce a ball-shaped sphere.

In our modern world there is no right or wrong way to grow a chrysanthemum, as all will produce flowers whether you pinch or not. It’s just up to you to decide if you want to raise rare varieties and to use a traditional method, a historical cultural method or your own method. Any way you choose, the chrysanthemum deserves a deeper look, or at least one beyond the limited world that the common fall hardy mum offers us today.

Anastasia is a new green flowered spider flowered chrysanthemum.

Sources

In North America, a few mail-order nurseries carry rooted cuttings, but the largest selection is carried by only one nursery, Kings Mums (www.kingsmums.com).

For more information visit the American Chrysanthemum Society web site.

Photo credits: Matt Mattus

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