Mums the word: growing chrysanthemums

When people think of chrysanthemums, more commonly referred to as 'mums', they think of the colorful bunches of daisies seen in just about every floral department in a grocery store, but it is in autumn when these brilliant blooms naturally flower. Many Asian cultures admire and hold the late-season flower in very high regard as a symbol of longevity and joy.

In late October, a beautiful exhibition took place in Capitol Hill’s Volunteer Park Conservatory to celebrate this beloved flower. In September, the conservatory re-opened its doors to the public. For many months, visitors seeking socially distanced interactions outdoors would visit the park, but only got to peek into the 100+-year-old Victorian glasshouse, hoping for a glimpse of the tropical treasures it held. Shortly after re-opening, they began to welcome local plant groups for plant sales and exhibitions. 

In attendance was a horticultural talent who has made the Pacific Northwest her home, and the chrysanthemum is just one of her specialties. Yoko Arakawa has always had a special touch when it came to growing plants. Trained in the science of her work, both here and in her native Japan, the artistic component of it set her apart as she spearheaded the production of plants from the famed Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, about an hour northwest of Philadelphia.

She was known for leading the 'One Thousand Bloom' chrysanthemum display, known in Japan as Ozukuri. It involves meticulously training a single plant, and through painstaking pruning, wiring, and careful cultivation, it will produce a giant dome of perfectly placed flowers to open all at the same time.

Seeing chrysanthemum blooms was like visiting old friends. Arakawa’s infectious enthusiasm and vast knowledge is something David Helgeson, senior gardener for Volunteer Park Conservatory, picked up on right away when they first met a few months ago. “We would be so honored to have Yoko work with us to create such a masterpiece. Maybe we’ll aim for a 500 mum bloom to start,” he laughs.

To have such expertise in an art form that is so rare and beloved by many is in danger of being lost. Both Helgeson and Arakawa, along with members of the Evergreen Chrysanthemum Association, commiserate about the lack of youth and diversity in growing specialty plants as the average age of their group is 60 and above.

“It seems like they just don’t have the time,” one exhibitor said. “They may have interest in the flowers, but it’s just too time-consuming for most people to grow and show chrysanthemums, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t learn a little along the way and enjoy them. You don’t have to be retired like me to grow mums.”

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