The chrysanthemum might be the floral finale of the season, but the gardener has to work hard to make this flower rise to the occasion. Even the most skilled use of forms, colors and combinations with looser companions — grasses, for example — barely fixes the underlying problem. The garden mum is too stiff and awkward, and the blooms are either garish or muddy, or both, which is quite a feat. Although the perfume of a rose can summon an idea of paradise, the chrysanthemum’s fragrance conjures a den of feral cats.
But I speak of the common landscape chrysanthemum, used in the fall much as lantana and petunias are in the summer, as bedding plants or for pots.
There is another world of chrysanthemums hiding in plain sight, to wit the once familiar and now more obscure spectacle of the exhibition mum. Or mums, because there are a dozen or more forms and scores of varieties that are variably cute, exotic or simply stunning. All of them are interesting and fulfill this plant’s promise. Cinderella shall go to the ball.
This year, the ball takes the shape of the National Chrysanthemum Society’s annual show, occurring in 2015 in Northern Virginia. If you go to Hyatt Fairfax Hotel at Fair Lakes this weekend, you will encounter mum varieties with only faint echoes of the garden article. Some single blooms are the size of your head, others form tubular petals with openings redolent of tiny spoons, others raise the flower to a delicious tangle of threadlike petals.
These forms from East Asia go back hundreds of years, and master growers there and in the West have raised mum cultivation to art. Think of this weekend’s exhibition as the premiere dog show for chrysanthemums.
If the hidden chrysanthemum is so beautiful, you ask, why doesn’t everyone grow it?
The answer lies in the Frederick, Md., back yard of 82-year-old David Eigenbrode, where you will find a wooden structure that resembles a picnic pavilion. It has stood for the past 25 years as his incubator of sorts for the exhibition chrysanthemums that have been a large part of his life for 32 years. The structure is screened on its sides and netted above to keep out pests. For the past month or so, the roof has been draped in clear plastic to protect the developing blooms from the elements. Raising exhibition mums doesn’t cost a fortune, but it takes method, time and the simple presence of their grower.
The blooms begin as rooted cuttings in spring, and as they grow, most fanciers plant them in larger pots. But Eigenbrode’s approach is to plant 150 chrysanthemums in six discrete raised beds each measuring 3 by 10 feet.
Now, in show week, most of the mums are about six feet tall or more, trained as ramrod-straight vertical stems, one or two to a plant.
Apart from providing basic growing needs — good soil, water, fertilizer — the mum grower must also spray against fungal disease and monitor for pests. Beyond that care, however, there are two other key aspects to raising these plants that sets the exhibition mum apart and contributes to its rarity.
The first is the constant removal of flower and vegetative buds that appear in the nooks where leaf stalks meet the main stem. This keeps the plant from turning into a bush and allows it to spend its energy developing one gigantic flower. Show mums presented as “sprays” have several blooms on a stem.
When you are raising dozens of plants, this pruning regime is “a continual job. I do it every day,” Eigenbrode said. Some growers pinch out the buds with their fingers; others use a knife.
The other task is tricking the chrysanthemum into thinking fall started early. Professional growers do the same for garden mums, as they do to poinsettias to get them to “bloom” in November and December.
Eigenbrode rigs cages over each of his growing beds, and in August he covers them in black plastic from 6 p.m. to 8 a.m. After two weeks or so, the chrysanthemums develop their flower buds.
If you didn’t do this, the mums would bloom around Thanksgiving — too late for the show and will be at risk from freeze damage.
Many varieties take 10 weeks for flower buds to develop into magnificent blooms. Some take a little longer, others a little shorter, so Eigenbrode must group his mums by their by light needs, working back from the show dates.
In Beltsville, longtime grower Robert Howell, 84, raises his mums in pots on homemade tables and shelters fashioned from plastic plumbing pipes. If summer evenings are too warm, he will wait until after 8 p.m. to begin the nightly, 12-hour-plus coverup. “It’s work to get blooms ready,” he said. “There’s no two ways about it.”