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Chrysanthemum by any other name

by Gerard Taaffe

The chrysanthemum (kiku) is the seal of the Imperial family, and along with the cherry blossom (sakura) is symbolically used as the national flower by the Japanese people. Chrysanthemums have been cultivated in Japan since the Heian Period (794-1185). In the olden days autumn used to be called the “chrysanthemum months.”

Large-flowered atsu-mono chrysanthemums bloom under a wood-frame shelter at Takarazuka Family Land.
“Cascade” or kengai-giku are trained over elaborate wire-and-wooden frames to suggest natural scenery.

In China, horticulturists cultivated yellow-flowered chrysanthemums as long ago as 500 B.C. During the Tang Dynasty (618-907) in China white and purple chrysanthemums were grown.

Like many plants that were introduced from China, the chrysanthemum was originally used for medicinal purposes. Chrysanthemum flowers are bitter aromatic herbs and can be used to lower fever, sooth inflammations, dilate the coronary artery to increase blood flow to the heart and inhibit the growth of pathogens.

The word chrysanthemum comes from ancient Greek, chrysos (gold) and anthemon (a flower), and is also the botanical name for kiku — or is it? The science of taxonomy is governed by strict rules. The International Association for Plant Taxonomy’s committee on spermatophytes is charged with regulating seed plant names, accepting or rejecting proposed names and resolving disputes over priority and spelling.

In 1961 Russian botanist Nikolai Tzvelev made a major reclassification of the genus chrysanthemum; he proposed the name Dendranthema, from Greek dendron (tree), referring to the woody stem, and for over three decades that became the official name. Then in 1995 Piers Trehane, an expert on horticultural taxonomy, thoroughly reviewed the subject and declared that Tzvelev’s “dendranthema” was invalid and should be rejected. The committee voted on the matter, and by 9-3 approved restoring the original name.

Long before the naming debate emerged, in 1932 to be exact, kiku were displayed in a small botanical garden in Takarazuka Family Land in Hyogo Prefecture (which was founded in 1927). While none were exhibited during the war years, the kiku shows were revived in 1953. This year approximately 1,500 pots of them are on display, some of them grown by the 150-some members of the local chrysanthemum club. They are at their very best around the end of October.

The florists’ chrysanthemum that we know today is in fact a hybrid, Chrysanthemum grandiflorum. One of the parents of this complex hybrid is the white-flowered Korean chrysanthemum (chosen-giku, C. zawadskii var. latilobium). This herbaceous perennial grows between 60 cm and 100 cm and is native to northern China, north and central Russia and the Carpathian Mountains.

The other parent is a low-growing perennial and is native to Japan: C. indicum (shima kangiku, also called abura-giku). C. indicum was named by Linnaeus in 1753. During the Edo Period oil was extracted from abura-giku in Nagasaki, hence the Japanese vernacular name.

Aside from these two acknowledged parents another five species are reckoned to have been used to give us what we know as the florist’s chrysanthemum.

Chrysanthemums are usually displayed in a formal traditional fashion. A wooden shelter is carefully erected for each of the different groups. The flowers are usually cultivated in special black pots, but in Shinjuku Imperial Garden no pots are used. Instead the chrysanthemums are cultivated in bare soil beneath the wooden shelter. Both of these methods of chrysanthemum cultivation require great amounts of patience and, of course, skill.

The main groups of chrysanthemum are as follows. Ogiku is the mainstay of all displays. Its flower heads are large, over 18 cm in diameter when fully open, in various shades of white, yellow, orange, peach and red. The main flowering period is from October to December.

During the Edo Period (1603-1868) the chrysanthemum became very popular with gardeners, resulting in new forms of the ogiku, such as atsu-mono, atsu-bashiri, hiro-mono, kuda-mono, ozu-kami and mino-giku. The ogiku is a large-flowered chrysanthemum, and the various names refer to the different petal shapes.

The atsumono chrysanthemums, known in English as “incurved decorative chrysanthemums,” have very large globular flower heads composed of many petals. The petals are wide, held tightly together and curve inward toward the center of the flower. Atsu-mono flower heads are so large and heavy that they require wire support.

Hiro-mono chrysanthemums, on the other hand, have wide-open, saucer-shaped flowers. The flower is single and individual petals are wide.

A very striking type is the kuda-mono chrysanthemum flower head, known in England as “cactus-flower chrysanthemums.” Like the atsumono’s, the flower head is wide, but the petals are tube-shaped. These tube-petals can be wide or narrow (futo-kuda or ai-kuda, respectively) or extremely long and narrow, like needles (hari-kuda). The heads are not as heavy as the atsumono but the long petals require support.

After the ogiku comes the medium-size flower group, again developed in various locations around Japan during the Edo Period. Medium-size flower heads are those with flowers over 9 cm in diameter. (Flower heads 9 cm and under are considered small.)

Just as with the ogiku there are various names associated with each flower type. The main groups are Higo-giku, Saga-giku, Ise-giku, Edo-giku and Ichimonji-giku.

Ise-giku is named after Ise in Mie Prefecture, formerly Ise Province. During the Nanboku Period (1336-1392), when a succession dispute caused there to be two competing emperors in Japan, Ise country was ruled by the “Southern Court” loyalist house of Kitabatake. Legend has it that one Kitabatake lord brought back a chrysanthemum plant after a visit to Daikakuji Temple in Kyoto. The flower head of the Ise-giku looks like a broom or mop (hoki); the long, threadlike petals completely cover the center disc and hang downward.

In the Edo-giku, petals reflex back over the central disc and give an untidy appearance to the flower. Higo-giku was first raised in Kumamoto (another old Southern Court loyalist area); its flowers have a single row of tubelike petals, and the central golden disc is clearly visible.

Two other distinct groups are the cascade (dai-kengai) and bonsai chrysanthemums. The cascade chrysanthemums were first introduced to England in 1931. The flowers are small but produced in large numbers, supposed to give the impression of a waterfall or a cliff covered with flowers.

Personally I like the bonsai chrysanthemums best of all. They are so intricate, and mature plants can look like old gnarled trees. The roots may be skillfully trained over shapely rocks to give the impression of a plant clinging to life on the edge of a tall precipice. They are beautiful to look at, but they do require a lot of maintenance.

Takarazuka Family Land’s flower displays around the year include Japanese primrose (sakura-so, Primula sieboldii) in May-June and alpine plants from mid-April to the end of May. There is an interesting greenhouse containing many tropical fruits of the world.

Don’t forget your camera!