The colourful flowerheads of chrysanthemums are bright and cheerful. These autumn-flowering herbaceous perennials are native to China, eastern Asia and north-eastern Europe. They have been cultivated for centuries in China and have become a commercially important group in the horticultural trade throughout much of the world, especially as cut flowers. There are now reported to be more than 20,000 cultivars, with 7,000 developed in China.
Thirty-seven naturally occurring species and four hybrids are currently accepted within the genus Chrysanthemum. The name is Greek in origin, chryos meaning ‘gold’ and anthemon meaning ‘flower’. In 1860 the name Dendranthema was published in which species of Chrysanthemum were included, but after much debate, the name Chrysanthemum was resurrected to the delight of horticulturalists.
Originally, small yellow flowerheads were used by herbalists in China, brewed as tea, becoming symbols of longevity and prosperity because of their health-giving properties. The flowers were also considered a symbol of autumn and ‘the flower of the ninth moon’. They were frequently depicted in Chinese art and became one of the plants known as the ‘Four Gentlemen’, with considerably admired qualities. After being introduced into Japan in the fifth century, Chrysanthemum was given Japanese status of royalty and in 1910 was made the national flower. A medal of honour, the ‘Supreme Order of Chrysanthemum’, is awarded to individuals for distinguished service to the country. National Chrysanthemum Day is celebrated on the ninth day of the ninth month. In some countries in Europe however, Chrysanthemum is a symbol of death with white flowers chosen for funerals.
Although Chrysanthemum species first reached European gardens in 1688, they did not become established for another hundred years. Isaac Wheeler of Oxford was reputed to be the first to raise seedlings in the UK and exhibited them in 1832, for which he was awarded the Banksian Medal from the Horticultural Society of London. Cultivated forms were primarily developed from Chrysanthemum indicum and the hybrid Chrysanthemum x morifolium. In 1846 Robert Fortune, who was commissioned by the Royal Horticultural Society, brought back the Chusan daisy from China which gave rise to the florist’s pompon chrysanths. The flowerhead of a chrysanthemum is composed of multiple, tiny flowers (florets), the outer ones being ray florets and the inner ones being disc florets. Cultivated varieties have different colours, numbers, sizes and orientation of these florets to produce numerous different classes including pompon, spoon, quill, spider, reflexed and incurved.
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Siu, HF 1990. Recycling tradition: culture, history, and political economy in the chrysanthemum festivals of south China. Comparative Studies in Society and History 32: 765-794.