Perennial Notes Excerpts
The first contingents of chrysanthemums mobilize before Labor Day. Encamped in endless columns, ordered by color, they occupy nurseries and garden centers. If you like your perennials disciplined and polished, these chrysanthemums have the right stuff. It's hard to resist enlisting a few to fill those annoying gaps in the border. Once planted, however, they refuse to break rank and are seldom at ease during their first seasonal tour of duty in the garden.
Subsequent years tell a different story. Without repeated shearing, these same chrysanthemums slouch and sprawl. Regardless of how frequently or severely they are pinched back, they never achieve the tight, well-drilled habit that they displayed originally. This complete about face in attitude always mystified me, until I learned their dirty little secret, i.e., the varieties that are mass marketed every autumn are chemically-dependent chrysanthemums. Many growers apply artificial growth regulators that act like chemical pruners to produce uniform, naturally compact plants.
Chrysanthemums are among the most ancient of perennials. They were cultivated by the Chinese as long ago as 500 B.C. The Chinese developed exotic incurved forms that, with careful disbudding and staking, produced exhibition quality blooms. Later, Japanese growers bred simple daisy types that found their way into European gardens in the eighteenth century. It is from these Japanese varieties that modern garden selections are descended.
Classified as short-day plants, chrysanthemums set flower buds with the dwindling hours of daylight in late summer. Prolonged autumns in the South permit even the late season varieties to bloom before the first hard freeze occurs. To flourish they need soil of average fertility and full sun . Most are hardy to Zone 5. Over the years a few have become favorites among Southern gardeners because of their beauty and durability. These varieties persist as pass-along plants that are offered in market bulletins and regional mail-order catalogs.
One noteworthy garden mum – with "mum" being a term of endearment – is a single daisy type whose cantaloupe colored buds open to a clear apricot. This plant's taxonomic designation is a little clouded and it is sometimes listed as Chrysanthemum x morifolium 'Apricot' or 'Single Apricot' or 'Apricot Korean'. With its tidy habit, red-tinged stems, and uncommonly dark green foliage, this chrysanthemum is an elegant presence among coarser fall bloomers. The plant averages two feet in height and the flowers measure two inches across.
GPPA member Pat Penn has grown Chrysanthemum x morifolium 'Single Apricot' since 1991. I first admired it in her charming Virginia-Highland garden. Pat's original plant was obtained from the former Montrose Nursery and it quickly grew to fill numerous gaps in the garden. She learned that she could lift and relocate clumps, even those in bud, throughout the season to fill empty spots. Renewing the plants in this way contributed to their vigor, as they tend to become woody and less florific if they are left in the same spot for several years. Pat particularly favors blue or purple companions for this chrysanthemum. These include plants like Salvia 'Indigo Spires', tall balloon flower (Platycodon grandiflorus), hardy ageratum (Eupatorium coelestinum), and butterfly bush (Buddleia 'Nanho Purple').
Pat describes her cultural approach as benign neglect, though she tries to pinch the growing tips back several times up until the end of July. Flower buds are in evidence by early September and they begin to open throughout the first half of October. Deadheading prolongs the bloom period and early frosts are seldom a bother. The plants are amazingly pest and disease resistant. Moreover, like most chrysanthemums, 'Single Apricot' is an ideal cut flower. To propagate them, it's easy to divide existing clumps or to take cuttings. If this is done early enough in the spring, offspring should bloom the following autumn.