We all love fall mums. The vibrantly colored flowers and sturdy plants signal the beginning of autumn for most of us. We buy them by the dozen to decorate porches and front steps, plant in containers and window boxes, add to fading gardens, use as centerpieces and give to friends. Then, at the end of the season, most of them go into the compost. The next year we do it all over again.
How did this ancient herbal plant, originally a revered wildflower in Asia, become our favorite autumn flower? And why don’t we ever consider it’s traditional herbal and culinary uses along with it’s decorative ones?
Chrysanthemums are native to China, where they have been used for medicine, food and decoration for at least 3000 years. Confucius wrote about the wild little daisy-like flower, praising it as “the golden flower”. Bravely blooming in the chill weather of late fall and early winter, chrysanthemums became the Chinese symbol of nobility, elegance and longevity.
Chrysanthemums arrived in Japan about 400 c.e. It’s golden flowers quickly became as popular and beloved as they were in China. A stylized version of the circular flower that shone like a miniature sun became the official emblem of the Japanese Imperial family.
Closely guarded as prized plants by both the Chinese and Japanese, chrysanthemums didn’t appear in European gardens until 1789, when a French merchant brought home three plants from China. It wasn’t long before the plant appeared in England’s Kew Garden.
Chrysanthemums were introduced to the American public at an exhibition in 1841 and became an instant hit. We too fell in love with the fall blooming, brilliantly colored flowers and crisp aromatic foliage of the garden mum and have been growing them ever since.
Perhaps the beauty, hybridized forms and enchanting colors of the flowers eclipsed the herbal and culinary usefulness of the plant, but as the chrysanthemum made it’s way around the world, most of that knowledge seems to have stayed in Asia.
Many Asian countries still celebrate the chrysanthemum on the traditional ninth day of the ninth month. Chrysanthemum wine is sipped for long life and good health, poems are written, flowers admired and dishes served featuring chrysanthemum leaves and flowers.
Chrysanthemum flowers are used in Chinese medicine as a tea to reduce fevers, relieve headaches and stabilize blood pressure. The flower petals are used in salads and as garnishes. One variety, the garland chrysanthemum (Chrysanthemum coronarium), is a common green available in most Asian groceries. Sometimes called chop suey plant, it is widely used in soups,stews and stir fry.
When you buy your mums this month, think about their history and how far the little golden flower has traveled in 3000 years. Once a treasured wild flower in ancient China, it is now one of the most widely grown plants in the world. Available in an astonishing variety of colors and shapes, the common mum signals the arrival of autumn around the globe.
THIS SEASON IN THE GARDEN
* This is a perfect time to reorganize the garden. Dig, divide and transplant peonies, day lilies, grasses and phlox or just about any thing else you would like to move around. Enrich the ground with manure, compost, lime and a handful of fertilizer. Replant, water well and half the spring chores are done!
*This is also an excellent time to add new perennial herb varieties to the garden. Remember that most culinary herbs–sage, thyme, lavender, winter savory, fennel etc.–need perfect drainage and full sun to survive the winter and thrive next year. Work a little lime into the hole before you plant. The plants will like that.
* If you grow chrysanthemums, try adding a few petals to a salad or dropped into the bottom of your wine glass. They have a tangy taste with a hint of pepper. Use the petals from your garden, not from newly purchased plants or florists’ flowers. You never know what has been sprayed on them.
* Try a new dish! Have dinner at a Korean restaurant and ask for a dish with chop suey greens or chrysanthemum greens. In a Taiwanese restaurant ask for tiger ears, another tender chrysanthemum green.
* It’s garlic festival season, another ancient herb. Go to a garlic festival. It’s fun: delicious food, great vendors and lots of garlic!
Sept. 4-5 Southern Vermont Garlic Festival Bennington, Vt.
Sept. 26-27 Hudson Valley Garlic Festival Saugerties, New York
* It’s garlic ( Allium sativum) planting season. Much of the garlic we eat today comes from China. Local, home grown garlic tastes just as good and is definitely fresher.
There are two types of garlic, hard-necked and soft-necked. Soft-neck garlic has larger cloves and grows in warm climates, such as southern California and China. Hard-necked garlic has slightly smaller cloves and thrives in cold places, such as northern Europe, Russia and New England.
Hard-necked or cold-climate garlic is planted in October and harvested the following July or August. Many New England farms are now growing hard-necked garlic, so look for heads at farmer’s markets and farm stands You can identify hard-neck garlic by pushing the top of the head with your index finger. Hard-neck garlic feels as if there is a stick in the center of the head. Soft-neck garlic doesn’t have a stiff center stem.
To plant garlic for your own crop, separate the heads into cloves. Do not peel the cloves. Select a dozen or so of the largest cloves. Plant the cloves, root end down, about 6-8 inches apart, in a sunny, well-drained spot in your vegetable garden. All alliums thrive in rich soil, so it is a good idea to enrich your garlic planting area with a bag or two of compost or manure before you plant.
* If you missed the September garlic festivals, try this one:
Oct. 2-3 The North Quabbin Garlic and Arts Festival Orange, Mass.
* Be sure your garden is well watered before the ground freezes. Pay special attention to newly planted areas. Spread a little lime around hardy perennials before the snows come. They will grow better in the spring.
* Take any potted perennial herbs indoors before the heat comes on. Keep them in a cool spot for the winter. Southern light is not necessary, but cool temperatures are. If you live in an old house, try wintering your potted herbs in the basement. Old houses usually have damp, cool basements, perfect for sleeping plants.
* November 6-21 Smith Collage annual Chrysanthemum Show. Northampton, Mass. Free and beautiful.