Cold Dew: Chrysanthemums are tinged yellow

April 19th, 2012
by Jo Law

In this pentad, the escarpment was once again shrouded in thick clouds and heavy rain returned. During periods of heavy falls, I could see sheets of water pelting against the window. Wednesday, April 18th topped the monthly highest rainfall so far with 54.4mm recorded at Bellambi. This is followed closely by the 53.8mm recorded on Thursday April 19th. This plentiful rain satisfied the garden although the slowing growth during these shorterning days is evident. The cucumber vines produced their last fruits, the rocquette has grown large and bitter, and the edible chrysanthemums are flowering. 

Chrysanthemums have a long history in their native China where both their ornametal qualities and medicinal properties are priced. The flower holds a highly significant role in Chinese arts and culture. Together with the orchid, the bamboo, and the plum blossom, the plants are known as ‘The Four Gentlelmen’ amongst flowers (花中四君子). Their depictions in paintings and references in poems allude to the passing seasons: spring orchids, summer bamboo, autumn chrysanthemums, and winter plum blossoms (春蘭、夏竹、秋菊、冬梅). These seasonal emblems embody valued noble qualities.

My own relationship with chrysanthemums is comparatively more prosaic. The flower’s known longevity as cut-flowers lends itself to be the bloom of choice for grave’s visits. Chrysanthemums would be what we always took on the autumnal visit to my paternal grandfather’s grave in the hillside catholic cemetry. The presence of fresh flowers in the grave’s stone vase would mean other visitors had already been to pay their respects. Dead and dried-up flowers would be removed, and any remaining water tipped out. Leaves would be removed from the lower parts of the chrysanthemums’ long stems before the new flowers are arranged in the vase. The handsome yellow blooms set against the grey gravestone. My mother would topped the vase with fresh water.

It was after hearing my maternal grandfather account of attending a chrysanthemum show in his youth that I started to notice the myriad of deviations taken by chrysanthemum cultivars. The extraordinariness of this bloom was made apparent to me at the annual chrysanthemum show held at Shinjuku Gyoen in Tokyo, where exhibits that seemingly defy botany were proudly displayed and quietly appreciated.  It wass not difficut to imagine scenes of the much celebrated chrysanthemum festival once held on the ninth day of the ninth lunar month in Heinan Japan.

2 Responses to “Cold Dew: Chrysanthemums are tinged yellow”

  1. 1 Mike
    April 21st, 2012 at 21:07

    Is not the chrysanthemum a national emblem in Japan? I have always associated it with Japan so interesting read that it actually ‘began’ in China. Which part and during which dynasty? Maybe it was a part that ‘belonged’ to Japan at that time? There are two other associations; a Japanese friend living in England, Takako Saito, one of the New York Fluxus group, used to make exquisite tempura. On one occasion she asked if there were chrysanthemums growing in the garden. There were and so she picked some of the leaves and added them to the tempura mix of goodies she had prepared. Amazing! It was like eating the smell of the flower, without the slightest hint of bitterness, (the usual flavour association of flower eating learnt as a child!) Chrysanthemums were one of the most popular biennials – (is it really spelt the same as an art event ?) – grown in Britain and a consistent memory from a post-War childhood. They seemed to grow without much trouble or skill, probably because of the comparatively mild and damp climate, and as you observe, were a ready source of cut-flowers in the autumn season. My grandmother used them in this way a lot.
    I hadn’t seen them for years until moving to this house in Nowra where the previous owner, intent on reproducing an English country garden, had planted them and many other of the kind, including dahlias, the other great competition bloom. The dahlias have provided an amazing show throughout the spring and summer and seem to go on and on…… But their days are numbered. All the natives I have been planting for a year now are gradually getting bigger. It’ll be survival of the fittest for this climate, something which Mr Banks acknowledged over two centuries ago.

  2. 2 Jo Law
    April 22nd, 2012 at 13:49

    Hi Mike,

    It’s really interesting to hear your associations with chrysanthemums. It seems to be a flower that has myriad of assoications in different cultures and has the ability to conjure up very specific memories in people. As mentioned, I cannot think of chrysanthemums without thinking of visiting graves and attending funerals. Apparently, they are also a funeral flowers in Italy. Wikipedia tells me that it is bloom of choice on Mothers’ days in Australia, is that true?

    Knowing of the place chrysanthemums have in Chinese culture, I was conversely intrigued to learn of its deep-rooted place in Japanese history. The Japanese emperor sits on the Chrysanthemum throne and the flower is used in the imperial seal. Chrysanthemums were imported to the Japan from China along with their cultural signifiance during the Chinese Tang dynaesty. In the Heian Japan (10th century), all that was Chinese was at the height of fashion and chrysanthemums were celebrated in Autumn (as they still are).

    The idea of chyransanthemum tempura sounds exquisite. There are Japanese recipes of using the stems and leaves of the plant as a cooked vegetable. The Chinese ususally make a refreshing tea out the dried flowers. I now know that to do with the edible variety I am growing in the garden!