They’re tough, colorful, and truly perennial
by GRAHAM RICE
IN RECENT YEARS chrysanthemums have become dispensable. So often they’re bought in the fall from roadside stalls or home improvement stores and simply stood outside by the front step—often in the plastic pot in which they were bought—until the frost kills them. Sometimes they’re still there, shriveled little bundles of sticks, when the snow thaws in the spring. Not a respectful way to treat a plant.
But we’re gardeners—we actually grow our plants, in the garden. While these dwarf chrysanths may be highly sophisticated examples of the plant breeder’s technique, and bring color to gardens where, otherwise, there may be nothing to see but evergreens, they’re just one tiny part of a vast range.
Breeding these ephemeral mums is big business, but they’re not bred to be hardy (although occasionally one, like ‘Hekla’, with its single white daisies, proves to be a good long-term garden plant). Breeding cut-flower chrysanths is also quite an industry, with companies like Yoder creating a constant stream of introductions, some of which are gorgeous. But these are usually for glasshouse conditions or warm climates, with no thought given to gardeners.
Exhibiting mums is also still popular, and varieties continue to be raised with this in mind, usually by specialists like Kings Mums, but these too usually make unsatisfactory plants for the border. So, for a combination of good garden performance without fussing, prolific flowering, and a good range of colors and flower forms, we need to look back to the old-fashioned types that were actually raised for the garden.
The rubellum chrysanthemums are derived… well, there seems to be some doubt about their exact origins. It is agreed that C. zawadskii, or perhaps its subspecies latilobum, is the main parent, but along the way they may have taken on some blood from the dwarf, very late-flowering C. yezoense. For the rubellums are unusual in showing more of a tendency to spread than other types and so making rather loose clumps; this is also a feature of C. yezoense.
The first rubellum we know as a garden plant was found in a public garden in Wales in 1929. It was awarded a Royal Horticultural Society Award of Garden Merit, and from it Gerald Perry, of Perry’s Hardy Plant Farm on the outskirts of London, where so many fine perennials were developed, raised the first garden varieties. The first rubellum arrived in the United States in 1936 and was, surprisingly, first thought to be a hybrid between C. zawadskii and Boltonia latisquama.
Rubellums are hardy (to USDA Zone 4), prolific plants that grow two to three feet high, but with a tendency to flop, so they need discreet support. (You can also pinch the shoots in early summer, usually June, and they will grow shorter and bushier. Flowering may also be delayed by a week or two.) They like sunshine, any reasonable soil that is neither parched nor waterlogged, and are indispensable in the fall border.
Some of the earliest varieties are still around today, but need to be hunted down, and the spelling of their names has sometimes gone a little wayward. ‘Clara Curtis‘ was one of the very first, a single in deep rose pink with a fine white band around its yellow eye; it could be the same as ‘Ryan’s Pink’, though this is sometimes listed as Korean. It looks superb with the rich foliage of Persicaria microcephala ‘Red Dragon’.
‘Duchess of Edinburgh’ is also still around, a double deep crimson whose yellow eye is only revealed as the flowers fade. It needs support more than most, and is good with pink Begonia grandis subsp. evansiana in front.
‘Mary Stoker‘ is single, with primrose flowers tinted pink—an unlikely but surprisingly effective combination that makes this a good link plant between the yellow fall color of nearby shrubs and the richer pink of other chrysanths. And there’s ‘Anne, Lady Brockett’, rediscovered in France about 10 years ago, with its apricot buds opening to dusky pink single flowers.
First of all, they’re not from Korea—the originals were bred by Alexander Munnings at Bristol Nursery in Connecticut, where Hosta ‘Frances Williams’ also originated. Bristol is in USDA Zone 6, and many Koreans are tough enough for Zone 4.
Developed from the rubellums, with perhaps some blood from the florists’ chrysanthemums of the 1930s, hundreds of Koreans have appeared over the years, but most have gone. Originally they were distinctive not only for being the hardiest mums around, but also for having no more than one or two rows of ray florets, so they were essentially highly substantial daisies.
‘Wedding Day‘, one of the few that can still be found, is close to the original style but tall, at least four feet. White, with a tint of apricot as the flowers fade, it has the distinction of an unusual green eye. Others include ‘Lucie’s Pink’, in deep rose pink and one of the latest to bloom (found by Nancy DuBrule of Natureworks in a Connecticut garden where it had been for decades), and the single ‘Penelope Pease’, nearly a century old, in creamy white aging to pink.
The simply, aptly, and probably illegally named ‘Apricot‘—sometimes called ‘Single Apricot Korean’ or ‘Apricot Single’—has yellow tips to its florets and a very pale ring round its big buttery eye. Although sometimes listed as a rubellum, it probably belongs here and is lovely with purple-leaved Sedum telephium ‘Atropurpureum‘. ‘Apricot’ is similar to ‘Hillside Pink‘, introduced by Fred McGourty and also known as ‘Hillside Pink Sheffield’ or simply ‘Sheffield,’ although this may be an heirloom whose original name has been lost.
For of the hundreds of varieties originally introduced, from Bristol Nursery and by other nurseries around the country, and from England, relatively few remain. Being so tough and so easy to propagate, though, lost heirlooms may still await rediscovery in cottage gardens or small nurseries.
These dainty little charmers are indispensable: neat in growth, usually no more than two and a half feet tall, densely and twiggily branched, self-supporting, and with unusually small, neat foliage. Most are hardy to at least Zone 5. Confident without being overpowering, they make fine fall border perennials and last well, often into December.
All these little poms are derived from ‘Mei-Kyo’, with its small, tight, lavender-pink buttons eventually revealing a yellow eye. Introduced to England as cuttings sent in a matchbox from Japan, and soon crossing the ocean, it’s still the most widely available of this type and is lovely with the last pale blue, parrot-beaked flowers of Salvia patens ‘Cambridge Blue’.
‘Mei-Kyo‘ has repeatedly sported to other colors in the same style: first to ‘Bronze Elegance’ (not ‘Bronce Elegans‘), then to ‘Purleigh White’, then to buttercup-yellow ‘Nantyderry Sunshine‘. There’s even a rare variegated form. All are good, but apart from ‘Mei-Kyo’, are hard to find (an opportunity there for an enterprising nursery). ‘Sweet Peg‘ is a dwarfer sport, while ‘Color Echo’ is also a sport of ‘Mei-Kyo’ (found by writer/photographer Pamela Harper), but with single lavender-pink flowers with a white ring round the yellow eye. H
For sources of plants featured in this article, turn to page 77.