When it comes to nature’s vibrant autumnal paintbrush, the average non-horticulturist thinks of trees and leaves. But Mother Nature delivers another burst of fall color in the form of chrysanthemums, which bloom in shades of red and rust, white and yellow, purple and pink.
These days, people generally view chrysanthemums as disposable potted plants that sit on the doorstep, and are tossed after their flowers wither. But chrysanthemums are actually perennial plants that can grow well in the garden, surviving — and thriving — through both Boston’s freezing winter and intense summer heat, then blooming with bright color every fall without you having to do much at all.
Chrysanthemums belong to the daisy family and, after more than a century of commercial cultivation that emphasized the size of its flowers over longevity, come in many varieties.
“They begin flowering at the end of September and go through Thanksgiving,” says Stan Kozak, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s chief horticulturist. Kozak tends to as many as 7,000 seasonal plants, including the famous nasturtiums, in the museum’s Hingham nursery. He transports dozens of chrysanthemums to Boston to decorate the museum’s Italianate courtyard each fall.
Chrysanthemums, which originated in Asia, are another trophy plant that the great Victorian-era travelers like Isabella Stewart Gardner would have imported.
“These are plants that she probably saw on her travels and would have wanted to bring home,” says Kozak.
Grow your own
Make sure to choose what’s called a hardy variety, which differ from those cultivated for florists. These amazing plants are photoperiodic, which means they react to light and bloom as the days get shorter. So, avoid planting near street or artificial lights. Also, don’t overcrowd; they like space. If you have a large old plant, in spring, split it up retaining a good amount of rootstock, and plant in another part of the garden.
“It depends on variety, but I always think the best time to plant is in spring,” advises Kozak. “For an established plant, you can start cutting it back in spring and then stop at the beginning of July. That will lessen insect infestation and then give it enough time to grow through summer, ready to bloom in the fall.”