Our modern-day garden mums are a far cry from their wild relatives. And thank goodness for that.
Instead of the small, insignificant yellow daisy that grew with wild abandon in Asia and northeastern Europe, our contemporary breeders have produced a cornucopia of colours (pink, purple, red, orange, bronze, salmon, lemon, yellow, cream, lime green and white) and a smattering of weird and wonderful forms, anything from anemone-shaped, spoon-tipped, spider-whipped, thistle-like and quill-like.
Quite the most wacky form of chrysanthemum I've ever seen is the spider chrysanthemum, with its long, thin, outer, tube-like petals and shorter incurving inner petals. The disk florets (the small flowers at the centre of the flower head) are completely concealed; it's the ray florets that form the tube-like constructions. Whether you like them or not, these are flowers that really like to show off.
You'll only find spider chrysanthemums at specialist nurseries, clubs or at the various chrysanthemum shows that occasionally pop up around the country. But once you're hooked, believe me, you'll do anything to seek them out.
Most of the modern garden mums we grow are hybrids of the species Chrysanthemum indicum, and of this there are three main types: Garden mums, potted mums, and cut flower hybrids. The potted mums are grown indoors and the taller cut flower forms are typically grown commercially or for those who like to exhibit (although there's nothing to stop the home gardener growing them). Of the three types, it's the garden chrysanthemums that can be planted outdoors now for autumn flowering. A spring or early summer planted garden mum will grow better and develop a stronger root system than if planted in autumn. It will also have a better chance of surviving a harsh winter.
The world's really your oyster when it comes to choosing what you want to plant colour-wise, but it's worth considering that garden mums are either early or late flowering. Early flowering chrysanthemums bloom from around February onwards, while the late-flowering types bloom from around April. In colder areas you're best to stick with the early types to ensure good blooms before the first frosts. Or grow your plants in containers so they can be moved into shelter if necessary.
While garden chrysanthemums tolerate light frosts, they have shallow root systems which may be damaged in severe cold or repeated frosts.
Your local garden centre should stock the right chrysanthemums for your area, although you can get a better selection from specialty growers, such as Coulter's Chrysanthemum Nursery in Christchurch. These guys really know their stuff and can advise you on the right plant for your garden.
Because of their mounded habit and vibrant colours, garden mums are great for mass-planting in the garden. Choose a sunny, fairly sheltered spot with good drainage, and dig in plenty of compost and a handful of blood and bone. Water the plant immediately then water as needed to prevent wilting.
Some growers suggest planting your mums away from street or other night lights as light during the night may inhibit flower formation. Chrysanthemums have a certain night length requirement to initiate flowers.
About a month after planting, plants can be "stopped". This simply involves pinching off the tips to encourage compact, bushy plants. The extra side shoots that are produced from this technique will bear extra flowers.
Repeat the stopping procedure through summer whenever new shoots are 8 centimetres to 12cm long. Stop pinching midsummer otherwise bud formation won't occur soon enough for flowering before the cold weather sets in.
To ensure strong, vigorous plants, liquid feed with a balanced fertiliser every month until flowering, or when the buds begin to show colour. If you keep on feeding, the blooms may become soft and prone to damage.
After three to four years, your garden mums may need rejuvenating. When new shoots appear in spring, dig up the entire clump and divide into sections. Replant into compost-enriched soil.
There's another type of chrysanthemum that's worth looking at. It's the annual garland chrysanthemum (Chrysanthemum coronarium), aka shungiku. It's a close relative of the garden mum and while its gold or gold and white flowers can be picked for the vase, it's typically grown for its leaves and stems which are used to flavour soups, salads and stir-fries. The Japanese also use them in tempura. The petals are edible, too, but the bitter centre should be removed. The plant also has medicinal properties, so herb fanantics and herbalists will grow them for their health benefits.
When planted in the garden, shungiku is likely to return each year, as it self-sows readily. It's frequently seen in wildflower catalogues for this reason, as growers are recognising it not just for its culinary uses but for its pretty floral display, as well.
- The Southland Times