By Jill Brooke
Retired elementary school teacher Joan Matthews is on a mission to “Save the Chrysanthemum.”
After realizing that many cultivars of these beautiful exhibition-style mums, once wildly popular in American culture, were disappearing from home gardens and facing extinction, she suddenly felt compelled to act. And quickly. After all, there was only one farm in the United States – King’s Mums – even selling the big dish-size bouncy flowers via root cuttings for the few who still had a passion for them.
First, she started by reviving and championing the Central Carolina Chrysanthemum Society (CCCS) in North Carolina which had disbanded.
“Anyone who would join the club was given free flowers to plant,” recalls Matthews, who started this practice 15 years ago. Everything from the pincushion varieties to the ones with spiderly-like petals was offered as gifts and enticements.
Then with passion and persuasion – as well as charm – she convinced Sarah P. Duke Gardens to grow and feature large, vintage chrysanthemums in their fall displays and programs and educate consumers on the 13 different classes of chrysanthemums.
Simultaneously, in her role as president of CCCS, Matthews was also instrumental in the creation of the Festival of Fabulous Mums, an annual event featuring an indoor flower show with glorious blooms of every size, shape and color of this ancient botanical beauty.
“It’s fun to watch Joan in action,” says friend Penny Amato. “Once someone sees the vast variety of large exhibition-style mums they never knew about, Joan can really put the hook into them with her enthusiasm and concern for their preservation. In the kindest way, she can talk just about anyone into giving these heirloom chrysanthemums a try in their own garden. That’s how she hooked me.”
And of course, that is how Matthews first got hooked when she received one for “a dollar” to plant in her garden almost two decades ago. Just growing one chrysanthemum and witnessing how it “adds so much color and beauty” to a garden for months inspires many to become mother earth helpers in sustaining the flowers’ survival. In fact, the flower for November is one of the few that can endure an early frost and still survive and will last weeks in a vase.
“Exhibition chrysanthemums are rarer than orchids now,” says Matthews. “You can purchase an orchid plant at most grocery stores and big-box stores. So ensuring that each plant grows is a responsibility that I take seriously. Usually, by mid-season, I have propagated so many new plants because I cannot let one perish or go to waste. If you stop by my garden you will be certain to walk away with a free mum plant.”
So why are these exhibition chrysanthemums not in vogue?
After all, the conventional condensed mass-produced mums as both plants and flowers can be found in gardens and are sold in supermarkets and nurseries. The flower, which originated in China in the 15th century B.C. and is also is the crest and official seal of the Emperor in Japan, has always been popular in Asia and Australia.
Well, size matters. So does cost.
“They are difficult to transport as a full-grown plant since most are 3 feet high,” explains Matthews “Also the flower can be ten inches.”
Plus events are no longer linked to the flower. In years past, most people’s introduction to the chrysanthemum was a corsage for the girlfriends and mothers at homecoming football games.
Furthermore, many big-time florists sniff derisively at these flowers for not being posh enough like a rose or orchid.
“The mum has been neglected by American design trends for so long that chrysanthemums have acquired a stigma as a common flower,” says Tonneli Gruetter, owner of Salty Acres Flower Farm and an editor at Florists Review magazine, She considers the flowers “treasures.” “Many florists don’t even know the beautiful range of heirloom flowers they are missing out on,” she adds, noting that this neglect has caused “a near-total void of fancy heirloom chrysanthemums available in the cut flower supply chain.”
But there seems to be new efforts collectively happening besides the considerable and impressive efforts of fans like Matthews.
“First, there has been a huge renewed interest in locally produced flowers, which has come after the resurgence of local produce,” observes King’s Mums owner Brian Kanotz, who once worked at Longwood Gardens, which has one of the best chrysanthemum shows in the world. “Many of these growers have rediscovered the old plants or just like growing them, and let’s be honest, we all want something different.”
With the pandemic causing a renewed interest in gardening – with over 16 million new gardeners – this easy to care for plant is also being recommended more. Says Kanotz, “Only time will tell if this trend will last for the suddenly hip chrysanthemum.“
The Oklahoma-based grower credits Matthews for saving some of those flowers “that otherwise would have been lost.’
“She has been one of the most vocal ambassadors for the flowers, in a time when few else were,” he says. “She has sought out any opportunity she could to raise awareness about the flowers.”
As far as the best “and easiest” flowers to consider growing, Matthews recommends such global beauties as the yellow Bola de Oro, the red Doreen Statham, the purple Fleur de Lis, the white Icicles, and the green Feeling Green.
“The iris, lily, dahlia or rose don’t need the help,” says Matthews. who also is a popular speaker. “I’m on a mission to get people to know them, plant them and then love them.” Perhaps that is why we call her the “Grand Mum of Mums.”
Jill Brooke is a former CNN correspondent, Post columnist and editor-in-chief of Avenue and Travel Savvy magazine. She is an author and the editorial director of FPD and floral editor for aspire design and home magazine and contributor to Florists Review magazine.