Japan’s most famous fall flower surly is kiku, known in the west as the “common garden chrysanthemum” or more simply mum. As with virtually anything Japanese, kiku are neither truly Japanese in origin, nor simple to talk about. It is said that they were first brought to Japan from China as a medicine, coupled with a tale about them bringing long life (we’re talking 100s of years).
Over the centuries kiku became popular garden plants and their status grew, to the point that the kiku flower even became the crest of the Japanese royal family by the Kamakura Period. Through the intervening centuries this plant has been cultivated across the world with whole societies devoted to its care and appreciation. In this article I will focus on the plant mostly from a Japanese perspective, with special emphasis on the wonderful kiku festivals, called kiku matsuri, that pop-up around Japan every fall.
First a bit about the plant. A name batted around a lot in the literature is Chrysanthemum x morifolium. According to Kew this is an unresolved name (though oddly they accept C. morifolium as valid) and synonymous with Dendranthema x grandiflora. Regardless, this name is the one most often applied to “common garden mums” as well as kiku. Looking at the flowers any fool can see something is up however, given the extreme variation in their form and size.
Regardless of taxonomic difficulties, it is well known that hundreds of mum varieties exist, spanning an incredible range of flower and growth forms. In the west no less than 13 classes of flowers are recognized, and within Japan at least 7 basic types exist (with numerous sub-classes). More broadly, the genus contains somewhere around 40 accepted species, all Eurasian in origin, with their center of distribution in China.
Interestingly, though the plant has been bred in the far east for centuries, it is well known that they are strongly self-incompatible (common within the Aster family), meaning you cannot self pollinate a plant to produce viable seeds. Nevertheless, most of the range of flower types known today were developed using traditional techniques (e.g. selective breeding). Also interesting is that despite the fact that C. x morifolium cultivars are polyploids (hexaploid, 2N=54) the precise origin of this type remains unknown.
The large flowered types are called ougiku (large kiku), and are grown and displayed as single flowers. The most common Japanese classes are atsumono, kudamono, and ichimonji. Other flower types include chuukiku, kogiku, pottomamu, and kotenkiku based on flower size, breeding and form, and historical context. These flower types should not be confused however with the training styles mentioned below: fukusukezukuri, sanbonjitate, darumazukuri, senrinzaki, kengaizukuri, bonsaizukuri, and kikuningyo.
The most massive type of flowers are known in Japan as atsumono (literally meaning ‘thick object”), also known as the “irregular incurve” class in the west. These are the giants of kiku flowers, with each up to 20 cm across. To achieve this flower size, only one flower can be allowed to form per stem through a process called “dis-budding” (the removal of all buds except the terminal one). Furthermore, there are different styles of how the plants are trained to grow. In one case just a single stem is allowed to develop with just one terminal, giant blossom on a very small plant (fukusukezukuri). Another taller form has three flowers growing on three stems per plant (sanbonjitate), each balancing the others according to old Chinese belief. Each flower represents one vital aspect – heaven (ten), earth (chi), and human (jin). A smaller stature version of sanbonjitate is called darumazukuri.
During their development these flowers are painstakingly hand crafted, by manipulating the flower parts (florets) with thin sticks, thus bending and training them into the desired shape (often upward, creating a dense ball). In the west large flowered types like these have been given the unfortunate name of “football mum” – such a base name for a flower as regal as these!