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‘Mums’ the word this Sunday

Walking the urban streets of Masterton and Wellington in the past few weeks, I have been struck by clumps of chrysanthemums freely flowering in many gardens.

It intrigued me as these once-popular plants seem to be deeply out of fashion, and yet here they are blooming away in several front yards.
Then it dawned on me. Most of these will have started life in a glasshouse, with dwarfing chemicals probably applied, and then induced into flower as potted plants for the Mother’s Day market. Not that they need a lot of coaxing as they are plants that naturally flower in the late autumn and need little incentive to continue their natural ways.

In the wild, the plants are triggered into flowering by the shortening of the day; hence the late autumn flowering – photoperiodism is the fancy term. This is a boon for commercial growers as they can use lights and shades on the glasshouses to mimic the shortening or lengthening of the day, thus they can trick the plant to flower at any time.

Originating in Asia and highly developed by both the Chinese and Japanese, these perennial plants have been cultivated for their vibrant flowers of thousands of years. When I was a young gardener they were still a very popular garden plant. My mother had several varieties which she allowed to grow naturally. This meant the reached about two metres tall and has masses of smallish flowers atop the stems. I am certain these plants were originally potted gifts she transferred to the garden.

In recent years dahlias have undergone a huge revival – it is as though a younger generation of gardeners has suddenly discovered them, and they are starting to be much more regularly seen. Perhaps the same will happen to chrysanthemums, and we’ll see a renaissance of them too.

It is perhaps a weird word association that has made the chrysanthemum so aligned with Mothers’ Day. The common name for them is a contraction of their botanical name – “mums”.

If you are lucky enough to be given a pot of “mums” for Mother’s Day, there are a few tips to get them growing well in the garden. Firstly, make sure you do not overwater the plants. I’m not certain but I think more indoor plants die from overwatering than die from underwatering. Chrysanthemums certainly like to be moist, not wet!

Let them flower out, taking off the spent blooms and any diseased leaves – they usually died from the base up. You should end up with a cluster of new growth around the base of the old flowering stems.

Once spring comes, you can pop these into the garden. If you are a keen and experienced gardener, you can take cuttings from the new growth, but if you are a starter, it is probably easier just to split up the clump of stems [there’s usually more than one] and plant each out in a new spot in the garden.

Bearing in mind that they do not like too much water, make sure the spot you select Is free-draining, preferably in the sun, and well loaded up with fertiliser, because chrysanthemums are pretty keen on the tucker.

Once the clump is established, it is probably a good idea to pinch it back a few times during the growing season, as it will help keep the plant a little smaller and should also ensure larger flowers. Of course, there are extremes. If you do nothing, you’ll almost certainly end up with a tall plant and lots of flowers. If you just want some colourful blooms for the autumn vase, then that’s a good way to go.

On the other hand, if you are looking to take out prizes at the Chrysanthemum show, you will need to do the opposite. Exhibition growers keep just one flowering stalk, and then disbud frantically through the growing season, keeping just one flower per stem. The result is very large blooms. When you see them in their glory on the show bench, you will be astounded – the largest are almost the size of a netball, and some are almost perfectly rounded, too.

If you get bitten by the chrysanthemum bug, there are various websites that will help explain some of the intricacies of growing these plants for show and will be able to illustrate some of the various classes of show plants.

I am not sure I have the right temperament for show chrysanthemums, but it is always a treat to go to a show and see the range of flower available. Among the most attractive are the Fantasy varieties, with their spidery flowers, and the Anemone flowered types, with a big clump of petaloid stamen in the middle, surrounded by differently coloured guard petals. There are even cascade forms and bonsai varieties.

Thus, this Mothers’ Day, “mums” the word.

Roger Parker
Roger Parker
Roger Parker is the Times-Age news director. In the Venn-diagram of his two great loves, news and sport, sports news is the sweet spot.

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