Mounds of yellow, bronze and deepest red, they glow like bright jewels in my garden. Roses and peonies, lilies and hollyhocks are all welcome in season, but I have a special place in my heart for chrysanthemums. Everything about them—their clean, brisk scent and their tough, businesslike stems—epitomizes the crisp, no-nonsense air that Autumn brings in with her. Besides, these envoys of cool autumn days are storytellers. They bring back memories of other hands that tended chrysanthemums in long-ago gardens.
These same flowers grew
In autumn-shaded gardens
Many years ago.
When I was growing up in Japan, chrysanthemums were key. After all, they sprang from a very old and noble lineage and had been cultivated in the east for over two millennia. The Chinese believed that eating ‘the flower of happiness’ would make them long-lived; the Japanese imperial coat of arms was resplendent with a chrysanthemum.
Each autumn I crouched beside my two aunts as they planted new chrysanthemums in their gardens. Aunt Juliette went for the exotic type of mum, and each fall she brought home something new. Colorful and even bizarre plants bloomed in her autumn garden. My Aunt Francine, a maiden lady, preferred the true Japanese kiku, a dignified plant which produced one or two huge flowers—the same flowers which the haiku poet Basho immortalized. One year Aunt Francine brought home an expensive specimen which she tended with devotion. “Did you know,” she told me one day as she watered this prized plant, “that chrysanthemums were the flower of the nobility? In China, they didn’t let commoners grow them.” Then she would look around her as if daring anyone—commoner or nobleman—to mess with her flower.
Aunt Francine’s chrysanthemum fascinated me. The huge, erect pearly head with the curling, multi-dimensional petals was mysterious and exciting—and out of bounds. Whatever is said about forbidden fruit must include flowers, for every time I went into her garden, that kiku drew me like a lodestone. At first I only stared, but then I ventured to touch a stiff white petal. And then one day…
You know where this is going, don’t you? Eventually I found that just touching the flower was not enough. I reached out to give the plant a little push. It was fascinating how the heavy-headed chrysanthemum swayed back and forth, so I gave it another push … and the stalk of my aunt’s prized flower snapped in half.
Disaster! Horror! The severed stems of the flower wouldn’t stick together again no matter how I tried! And here was my aunt stalking toward me and staring at the ruin of one of her prized flowers.
“What happened?” she demanded.
Even if I had known what to say, my voice had long gone. Head bowed and ready to cry, I stood there clutching the evidence of my crime. Then—“Give it here,” my aunt demanded.
I handed over the chrysanthemum. She took it and commenced walking toward the house. After a few steps she turned and snapped, “Come.”
What was she going to do to me? Miserably, I straggled along behind her. But when we reached the house, all she did was to select a vase and fill it with water. That done, she slid the kiku into the vase.
“It looks lonely. It needs some green leaves,” she mused and then—inexplicably—she smiled and put an arm around me. “Let’s go into the garden and find some, shall we?”
You see why I love chrysanthemums?