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The hardy chrysanthemum: flower of fall

White chrysanthemums

Making all else about them

Reflected riches

– Miura Chora (1729-1780)

Like haiku, the chrysanthemum is rich with symbolism in Japan, where the flower has been extensively cultivated since it was introduced by Buddhist monks around 400 C.E. Later, it became the emblem of the Japanese emperor to symbolize honor and loyalty. Still today it is said the Mikado sits upon the "Chrysanthemum Throne," and "chrysanthemum taboo" refers to social disapproval of criticizing the Imperial House of Japan.

In Southern Oregon and elsewhere in the United States, the chrysanthemum is the flower that most signifies autumn. Although many garden mums actually begin blooming in summer, they are a favorite fall flower because healthy plants can continue producing beautiful blossoms up until the first hard frost. When the rest of our garden friends have bid us adieu, it’s difficult to resist buying at least a few potted chrysanthemums that will add a bit of color to our fading landscape.

I admit I’ve probably killed more potted chrysanthemums than any other ornamental plant. That’s before I learned there are showy florist mums bred as short-lived display flowers, and there are hardy garden mums with sturdier root systems that will help them thrive outdoors even during wintertime. Florist mums are best kept indoors where their fleeting opulence can be fully appreciated. But with a little know-how and TLC, hardy chrysanthemums will continue as frontliners in our fall gardens for many years to come.

The strongest mums are those we grow from seed or young starts and set out in the springtime. Plants purchased at garden centers or nurseries now have been growing in their containers for some time and are most likely rootbound. When selecting mature chrysanthemum plants that will be going into the garden, choose those with moist soil, deep green foliage, and tight buds rather than a lot of open blooms. Look for the words, “hardy” or “garden mum” on the label.

Remove the plant from its pot right away. Even if you plan to use your chrysanthemum as a container plant, it will perform better if transferred to a larger space. You’ll actually do the plant a favor if you remove the flowers and even some of the buds before planting it in its new home. Doing so will allow the plant to focus energy on developing strong roots that will hold it in good stead during the cold months ahead.

Choose a sunny spot in the garden that will provide some protection from winter winds. Work some compost into the soil beforehand and be sure to tease apart the roots before planting. Mums need well-draining soil, ideally on the sandier side with slightly alkaline pH (6.5-7.0). In fact, most garden mums aren't killed by freezing air temperatures, but from water collecting in soil around the roots and turning to ice. Prevent this by filling in the roots with soil, pressing firmly to remove air pockets. Mulch heavily around the plant, avoiding the crown, with straw, shredded leaves or evergreen branches.

Chrysanthemums look best planted in groups, but keep in mind that many purchased plants have been treated with growth regulators to keep them compact and looking tidy in their containers. Once they are planted outdoors, they will revert back to their natural growth habit. They’ll need plenty of elbow room, so space them at least 18 inches apart.

Keep the soil moist and fertilize every few weeks during blooming. Deadhead spent flowers to encourage new growth. Once the foliage dies, you can cut the plant back to 3-4 inches above ground for overwintering. In the springtime, new growth will emerge from the stolon. Dig these up and relocate the plants every 3 years to help ward off disease and insects.

Another haiku written by Oemaru goes: Do your worst, old frost/You can no longer wound me.../Last chrysanthemum! With the proper care, our garden mums won’t mind the frost, and they’ll repay our attention with lasting beauty.

Rhonda Nowak is a Jackson County Master Gardener and teaches writing at Rogue Community College. Email her at rnowak39@gmail.com.