Mum’s the word.

If you must speak, then sing out to the queen of autumn, the chrysanthemum. This quintessential fall flower is ubiquitous during this season and offers blooms of many colors.

Chrysanthemums are a very large group of plants with over 150 diverse species in the genus. Ox-eye daisy, feverfew, pyrethrum and Shasta daisies, along with many other plants, are chrysanthemums.

The chrysanthemum that now reigns supreme is the garden or fall mum (also called the florist’s mum), a variety that will grace many seasonal tables over the next months. It is the most widely grown potted plant in the United States, though it hails from a land far away.

Native to Asia and northeastern Europe, chrysanthemums have an ancient history. They were cultivated in China in the 15th century B.C. and were observed in Japan around the 8th Century A.D. These flowers came to the West and were named by Carolus Linnaeus, who has more than a few scientific names under his belt. Chrysanthemum is both the genus and common name of this plant, and Linnaeus fashioned it from two Greek words meaning ‘golden’ and ‘flower.’  

Mums are not only golden, though, as everyone knows: they can be found in many different hues. Each has its own meanings. In this part of the world, chrysanthemums are symbols of fidelity, joy and long life — choose red for love, white for truth, and yellow to give to a slighted lover.

Beware when travelling, though. In Europe, chrysanthemums are a symbol of death and are used for funerals and on graves. Mums may also bring lament in Korea, Japan, and China, but in a bit of a contradiction, these flowers can also be beloved. In China, the chrysanthemum is a holy flower. One story tells of a man called Hoso who drank the dew of the chrysanthemum and “lived to the age of 800 years without showing the slightest sign of decay.” As an herb, it was believed to have the power of life.

Perhaps this is due to a powerful compound, pyrethrum, which is found in the flowers of some chrysanthemums. This chemical acts as a natural insecticide and has been known to inhibit female mosquitoes from biting; and it attacks the nervous system of other insects.

An interesting study done by NASA shows that potted chrysanthemums can also reduce indoor air pollution. [It is a good stand-alone fact.] 

Chrysanthemums are members of the Aster family. Their bloom is unique in that it is not a single flower, but hundreds of florets. To further the confusion, chrysanthemums have about thirteen classes of blossoms. The National Chrysanthemum Society lists the types as follows: pompon, anemone, spoon, quill, spider, exotic, single and semi-double, brush and thistle, intermediate incurve, irregular incurve, decorative, regular incurve, and reflex. I guess it constitutes its own branch of aster-ology!

No need to keep quiet about chrysanthemums — praise them loud and proud and follow the advice of the Chinese philosopher who advised: “Be happy for a lifetime, grow chrysanthemums.”


Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.