Nothing says "fall in the garden" like a chrysanthemum. As much as I have discussed an upside down gardening season for Southwest Florida, chrysanthemums will always be "queen of the fall flowers." Like other photoperiodic plants, it takes long dark nights to form flowers. Thus, mums can be manipulated by commercial growers to set up any time of the year. Mums account for two of the top five best-selling cut flowers in the nation - pompoms rank third behind roses and carnations, with chrysanthemums ranking fifth behind lilies.
First cultivated in China as a flowering herb and recorded in history as early as the 15th century B.C., the Chinese believed it held the power of life. The boiled roots were used as headache remedies, and the sprouts and flowers were eaten in salads; the leaves were brewed for a festive drink. To honor the flower, they named a Chinese city Chu-Hsien, meaning Chrysanthemum City (Chu meaning chrysanthemum). It appeared in Japan around the 8th century A.D., in the crest and official seal of the emperor. The seals of prominent Japanese families contain some semblance of the chrysanthemum. The Imperial Order of the Chrysanthemum is their highest Order of Chivalry. They celebrate a National Chrysanthemum Day as the Festival of Happiness.
When my favorite botanist, Carrolus Linnaeus, father of taxonomy (the scientific classification and identification of all plants), in the 17th Century, combined the Greek words chrysos (meaning gold) with anthemon (meaning flower), some say it pointed out the flower's need for sunlight. Mums were portrayed as small yellow daisy-like flowers. Nowadays, there are so many varieties, each has to be classified on the basis of florets and growth patterns. Because there were a large number of species being added to its genera, some plant groups had to be split into other genera. In 1999, the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature ruled their genus as Chrysanthemum indicum, removing them from the Dendranthema genus. All are in the Asteraceae family, and are native to Asia and northeast Europe.
"Up North," mums have been out in the garden for months now. I have always had bad luck with mums down here. I felt they were more annuals than perennials fortunately, I just found out that I can take them out of their decorative pots and into the ground by waiting until October and November to plant them in South Florida. This makes them last much longer. Buy them with closed buds, because with wide open flowers they are at or past their prime for blooms. Poke them into corners of the garden to give life and color, but every front door should have a basket of mums outside to welcome fall and all comers.
Once the blooms start to fade, clip the stems down to the fuller portion. New green shoots should start and form new flower buds. They may never be as full as they were originally, but you can get a second flowering. Usually, mums can be carried over through the winter, but their clumps need to be divided in the spring to overcome crowding. They grow best in well drained soil with added compost, planted 18 to 24 inches apart to prevent crowding, with good air circulation around them to prevent disease. When the shoots are 6 inches high, pinch the tips out to encourage bushier plants. Pinch again when they are 8 inches tall, and a final pinching in early August. Apply up to three applications of 6-1-6 fertilizer and water it in. Mums have shallow roots, so keep them well watered near the ground surface. Plant mums in full sun, and keep them away from street or porch lights as artificial lighting can disturb their photoperiodic cycle.
My mother and grandmother used flowers in our food. All parts of chrysanthemum indica are edible. The leaves can be boiled or steamed and used as greens, or the flower's petals sprinkled in salads, teas, clear soups or used as a garnish. Be sure it is C. indica. According to our "Manual of Minor Vegetables" published by the Florida Cooperative Extension Service, there is a special chrysanthemum just for eating. It is listed as Chrysanthemum coronarium L, commonly called garland chrysanthemum. A lovely leafy version of the ornamental plant, having small bright yellow daisylike blooms, it can be eaten about a month after the seed is sown. Sow seeds in the fall or early spring. Remember - anytime you eat a plant, be sure it has not been exposed to pesticides and chemicals not allowed on foodstuffs by the USDA. This means, you can't eat the potted plants you buy at the stores.
Which now leads me to the mum used for a pesticide, Pyrethrum, obtained from C. coccineum and C; cinerariifolium. These two have now been placed in the Tanacetum genus. When you hear about a pesticide that is a "natural" insecticide, this is it, along with Neem. Pyrethrins attack the nervous system of all insects. When used in amounts less than deadly, they seem to have a repellent effect. Harmful to fish, it is less toxic to mammals and birds. This is why some people say mum petals are insecticides, but, only the Tanacetum genus ones are. Their common names are painted daisy, painted lady, tansy, feverfew, costmary, alecost, dalmatian and Persian chrysanthemum. Used in combination with Neem and insecticidal soap, it is a safe, effective, environmentally friendly garden insecticide. Do not confuse it with permethrin, a man-made synthetic insecticide which has low toxicity but is highly toxic to cats and other animals.
So for now, mum's the word - and thank a plant for good air, and elimination of the bad air.
Joyce Comingore is a master gardener, a national board member of the American Hibiscus Society, Arbor Day chairman for the Fort Myers/Lee County Garden Council, state federated District lX tree chairman and a member of the Garden Club of Cape Coral.