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A Bouquet of Blossoms Fit for An Emperor

By Adrian Higgins
Thursday, October 23, 2008

Last week I took a potshot at the chrysanthemum. This week I venerate it. I'm not being fickle. There are mums, and then there are mums.

I am thinking this as I watch Yukie Kurashina at work. She is orchestrating the final presentation and grooming of a white chrysanthemum variety whose name, in Japanese, means "Moon Below the Mountain."

This has to do with the milky hue of the blossoms and the way they are mounded, but even this poetic label doesn't do it justice. By now, its softball-size flowers will be fully formed and all 200 or more of them presented in nine tiers in perfect formation.

There is some form of alchemy going on here, but I don't really get it until Kurashina takes me to the back of this live exhibit at the New York Botanical Garden. These perfect blooms, these Rockettes of traditional Japanese mum manipulation, all grow on a single plant. A lone stem little bigger than a pencil erupts from the moss-strewn container, and from five main branches this mantle of floral art reaches nine feet wide and more than four feet high. Started from a cutting 11 months ago, it is woven through a barely visible frame of black aluminum braces and stakes custom-made for this ozukuri. The word is Japanese for "thousand bloom," and while that number might be a bit hyped, the plant artistry required to pull this off, if anything, is largely understated.

Kurashina is not so much in league with the devil as with Yasuhira Iwashita, master of the art of kiku, or chrysanthemum display, at Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden in Tokyo. Iwashita and his predecessors have been growing ozukuri for the emperor's pleasure and now public display for the past 120 years.

Kurashina, lead gardener for the kiku show in New York, has studied with the master since 2004 as part of an agreement with the Tokyo garden. A number of ambitious chrysanthemum shows are now in full swing, including one at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pa., which also includes another style of ozukuri.

The New York show is unique, said Todd Forrest, vice president of horticulture, in reflecting the classic kiku forms and techniques developed at Shinjuku Gyoen.

It is certainly an eye-catching spectacle, dazzling without being kitschy and staged in a pair of courtyards behind the Haupt Conservatory whose pond gardens are still decorated with Victoria lilies, waterlilies and grasses. The show opened on Saturday and runs until Nov. 16.

The expected 80,000 visitors will find the ozukuri one of four traditional styles on display. Kurashina and her team have also assembled displays of cascade mums, with tear-shaped mats as long as 10 feet; single-stem mums in perfect formation, a technique called ogiku; and displays of beautifully contorted blooms atop stems and stakes that evoke the lines of driving rain. As at Shinjuku Gyoen, each of these styles is housed in a custom-made pavilion of various architectural styles, protecting these coddled flowers from sun and rain.

"If the ozukuri are the most difficult to train, the single-stem are the most challenging to install," said Forrest. In order to get the rows in perfect alignment and ascending smoothly toward the rear, as much as four feet of each stem is buried, sideways in its pot, in the earthen plinth from which they rise. That means they cannot be watered during their two weeks of show.

As you enter the show, you find an imposing aerial sculpture of bamboo designed by the sculptor and ikebana master Tetsunori Kawana. Constructed over nine days by a 10-member crew, it forms a ribbon of hundreds of intersecting pipes of the giant timber bamboo, known as madake in Japan. The four-inch-diameter culms were harvested from mature stands in Georgia and are assembled to evoke the idea of a cloud floating above a forest.

The large, ball-like mum blooms are familiar to chrysanthemum fanciers and to florists, but they are unlike the common cushion or bedding plant now infesting the landscape.

Nor is the Moon Below the Mountain the lone ozukuri at the botanic garden. It is on display with two others, a pink mum named Friendship, and a yellow variety named Sun Below the Mountain. The show runs a month, two weeks longer than the one in Tokyo, so a whole new set of three will be installed halfway through the exhibition.

Kurashina and her assistants have prepared 10 of these plants, six for the show and four in reserve. One of the backups will be displayed at a greenhouse at the botanical garden so that visitors can get behind the plant to see its single stem, something they can't do in the main displays. In last year's inaugural kiku show, many visitors simply wouldn't believe the ozukuri was trained from a single cutting. Hey, this is New York.

Kurashina starts the previous November with a cutting (actually many; most are discarded along the way) and when it gets to about six inches, she pinches it to allow five branches. Three are set higher and will grow to six feet, in time, to form the front of the ozukuri. The back two form the rear of the dome. Once these branches are long enough to support 11 leaves, the stems are pinched again, and then again, to promote branching.

Pinching stops in July, but not another technique called disbudding. Chrysanthemums set buds in each leaf joint that, if left, would grow into stems that would bear weak flowers. These tiny buds, literally thousands of them, are removed by hand in summer and early fall. About a month before flowering, the gardeners allow two or three flower buds to develop at the end of stems that by then can reach five to six feet in length. The frame is then designed and constructed, and the stems are manipulated within the supports. The branches are pliant to a degree, but anything but a gentle touch at that stage could mean disaster. "There's a certain point you realize it's going to snap, so you have to train it to the other side of the frame," said Marc Hachadourian, curator of glasshouse collections. "You can't rush it."

The surplus flower buds, about the size of a pea, are removed based on minute differences in their size. The aim is to get all buds to flower at the same time.

The end product may be something highly manipulated and willfully unnatural, but the process represents the essence of gardening. "It's what horticulture is all about," said Hachadourian. "The relationship between the gardener and the plant. It's a conversation."

Chrysanthemum Displays

At the New York Botanical Garden, "Kiku, the Art of the Japanese Chrysanthemum" runs until Nov. 16. The exhibition also includes specimens of bonsai, Japanese maple and bamboo, and a show depicting the chrysanthemum in art and artifacts through the centuries. Closed Mondays. http://www.nybg.org. 718-817-8700, 718-817-8777.

Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pa., is about to open an exhibit of ozukuri raised by gardener Yoko Arakawa. The conservatory displays, on show from Saturday to Nov. 23, also feature chrysanthemums arranged into cubes and other forms. http://www.longwoodgardens.org. 610-388-1000, 800-737-5500.

At Brookside Gardens in Wheaton, a conservatory show features chrysanthemums in cascade forms. The exhibit has a nautical theme, with mums fashioned into dolphins, a lighthouse and a sailboat. It also includes spider mums, thistle types, anemone forms and Belgian decorative mums. Daily until Nov. 23. http://www.brooksidegardens.org, 301-962-1400.

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