Despite unbearable heat this time last week, it seems autumn has completely enveloped us. I suppose having lived here my whole life it is about time I get used to the volatility of our climate! Luckily it is the perfect time to plant mums. Mums are the absolute icon of the season, blooming in deep gold, buttery ivory, gorgeous burgundy, vivid yellow, and dark violet they capture the essence of the season. While “mum” is always applied to the common garden variety of the crysanthemum family, there are actually about 30 different varieties.
Crysanthemum was first cultivated in China during the 15th century, however is thought to be native to Japan. It was taken to Europe during the 17th century and named by combining the Greek words chrysous and anthemon. Chrysous means golden, referring to the original color of the bloom and anthemon meaning flower. Interestingly one variety of crysanthemum is commonly used as an environmentally friendly insecticide, as it is only harmful to insects and safe for birds and mammals. While associated with positive sentiment and the changing of the season for most of the world, in Italy, France, Belgium and Austria mums are a symbol of grief — usually used to adorn graves and sent to families who lost someone.
The common garden mums, or hardy mums, are the condensed plants full of small blooms that flood the market in the late summer and early autumn. However some of their more exotic looking cousins will grow here perfectly well also, such as the Spider and the show-stopping Irregular Incurve. Actually there are wild crysanthemum coronarium blooming right now here in Central Ohio. I have seen them along various roads in Delaware County; usually along some kind of wall that provides protection in the winter. It is something of a misconception that garden mums over-winter easily here in Ohio. Despite technically being perennials they require a significant amount of preparation and care for winter, as well as a spot that is sheltered from excessive snow cover, wind, and cold. According to OSU Fact Sheet HYG-1219–92 “The garden chrysanthemum, in most instances, should be considered an annual flower by homeowners. Therefore, when frost kills the tops of the plants, cut off the dead stems and remove from the garden. Sometimes, mums will come up the next spring if just the tops of the plants are cut off. If you prefer to try to keep them over winter, cut off the dead tops and cover the plants with mulch to a depth of three to four inches.”
That being said, there are many people (including some Delaware County Master Gardeners) who successfully enjoy their mums year after year. If you do over-winter your mums this year, an important task next spring and summer will be pinching the plant to keep its desirable shape, encourage as many blooms as possible, and ensure the bloom is right now in the early autumn not in the early summer. Pinching is not only for aesthetics but for the health of the plant as well. If mums are not pinched back during the summer, the plant will become too tall and leggy not allowing light to reach the lower leaves. Properly pinching is quite easy to do: “New shoots should have the tops removed by pinching them off between the thumb and forefinger. This practice should be followed, leaving two or three leaves on the shoot, whenever it becomes three to four inches long. This practice can be timed so that the fertilizing and pinching can be done the same day. This will usually be once a month from May-July. However, with most garden cultivars, the last pinch should be made no later than August 1. If pinching is continued after this date, flower buds will be eliminated from the plants. It may be suggested with some cultivars that the last pinch should not be made later than July 15. If it is, follow the directions given.”
In late August when the nurseries and even groceries begin to set displays of mums, it is a promise that the beauty and more mild weather of autumn is just around the corner. The crysanthemum family contains stunning blooms of all colors and palettes making it obvious why they have been prized for centuries. Mums are the definitive plant of the fall and no autumnal garden is complete without them.
Stephen Jones is an OSU Extension Master Gardener volunteer.
Preserving Your Herbal Harvest education series — Join the Delaware County Master Gardeners on September 24 for an herbal program at Deer Haven Preserve, 4183 Liberty Road, Delaware from 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Topics are Lavender, Pesto Possibilities and Savoring the Summer. Cost of $25.00 includes a light breakfast, an herbal lunch and beverages. Registration deadline is Sept. 16. Seating is limited.