I was attending a swank supper party over in Henlopen Acres the other night. The scotch was free flowing and the conversation was too, veering wildly from topics such as men who like to fluff bed linens to Republican presidential candidates to the pending migration of the monied set to the Palm-fringed beaches of Florida.
At one point, I was asked what my next column was going to be about, and I mentioned I was thinking about chrysanthemums, those cushion-like mounds of brightly colored blooms you see just about everywhere this time of year. Bad answer. I’m lucky I wasn’t asked to leave. You see, they don’t do mums in the Acres…
Seems a lot of folks look down their noses at the chrysanthemum, thinking it brash and mass produced and disposable after its blooms fade. Some mums, admittedly, are a little gauche, but that’s to be expected when you have more than thirty species and thousands of varieties of anything.
I wasn’t one hundred percent sold on writing about chrysanthemums until I saw the reactions to the idea. I knew I had to give it a go.
The chrysanthemum hasn’t always been regarded in low esteem. In China, where it is believed to have originated, the flower was revered for its healing properties. A hardy flower, it was also associated in Chinese literature with independent, proud, and noble men. By the 8th Century A.D. it arrived in Japan, where people bestowed many honors upon it. To sip dew from its petals meant long life. To eat the flowers meant immortality. The chrysanthemum became so prestigious that only royal and noble families were permitted to cultivate it. The emperor chose it as the symbol and seal of the imperial family, and it remains so to this day.
By the early 1800s, the flower had made its way to the Netherlands and England. Nobody knows for sure exactly when or who introduced the chrysanthemum to Europe, but there are well-documented reports of the flower arriving inside a glass case and under the care of Robert Fortune, a noted plant collector and writer of traveler tales. Perhaps recognized more for introducing tea to India, Fortune is credited with bringing all sorts of exotic Oriental specimens back for the Horticultural Society of London — azaleas, wisterias, magnolias, rhododendrons, honeysuckles, and bamboos. Upon retirement, he became a gentleman farmer and penned articles for the Gardener’s Chronicle, a popular British horticulture periodical.
The chrysanthemum’s early history in America is questionable. Some claim the flowers were imported first by wealthy gardeners in Philadelphia and Boston. Others insist they were grown first in fancy gardens in Virginia and the Carolinas. Whatever the source, they quickly gained popularity. The first American horticultural show devoted solely to the chrysanthemum was held in Boston in 1868. Mums today are the second most popular cut flower after the rose.
My first encounter with the chrysanthemum occurred in Virginia in 1978, and it was traumatic. Imagine if you will a huge honking white “football” mum emblazoned with GWHS letters spelled out with maroon-colored pipe cleaners and festooned with maroon and gray ribbon tails and little silver bells and worn on the large bosom of an over-perfumed, Farrah Fawcett wannabe in a white cowl neck sweater.
It gets worse.
After the homecoming dance, my date and I were guzzling Southern Comfort and Coca-Colas and nuzzling in the backseat of my best friend’s four-door, Thunderbird Landau. I remember feeling as if I was gonna suffocate in hair and perfume, and all the while the “Grease” soundtrack was playing and that damn mum was jingling and jangling, trying to lure my reticent hand. Luckily, my date upchucked on her sweater and all over the corsage. Always the gentleman, I gallantly tossed the soggy mum out the car window.
It wasn’t until many decades later when I bought my cottage in Rehoboth and started gardening on weekends that I began to appreciate the chrysanthemum in all its colors and blossom shapes. They raise a lot of mums in Delaware, mostly field grown, and nothing like what I remember from the bosom of my nauseated back seat paramour. And, while I cultivate the more classic Chrysanthemum manimum (Shasta daisy) and Chrysanthemum nipponicum (Montauk daisy) in my garden, every now and then I must admit that I’ll slow down and pick up one of those colorful, larger-than-life “monster mums” sold on the side of the road for $7.99 a pot.
Yes, I realize they’re a tad tawdry, the equivalent of fast food, but to me that’s also why they’re alluring. Forbidden desire. Do me a favor though and don’t tell anyone in the Acres about this predilection of mine or I won’t be attending any swank supper parties any time soon.