Japanese chrysanthemum flower festivals, kiku matsuri

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.

Spider Mums Daruma Style
These kudamono kiku (spider mum) are grown in the fukusukezukuri style – one flower on a tiny plant.

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.

WhiteSanbonjitate Mum
The large flowered kiku type called atsumono are typically grown in groups of three. This training style is known as sanbonjitate with each flower representing balancing elements: heaven, earth, and human.

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!

Spider mum white
Another large flowered kiku is called kudamono, meaning “tube object”, and is better known in the west as a spider mum.

The kudamono (meaning “tube object”) type is known as “spider” class in the west. These are indeed the well known spider mums so popular around the world. The florets are long, narrow, and tubular, often with a coil or hook at their ends. In Japan these can be grown as single flowers, in the sanbonjitate style, or in groups of five to seven flowers per plant. Each flower is typically held up by a circle of wire coil a their base for best placement and form. Flower size is impressive in this group too, typically 15 cm or more across.

Ichimonji kiku red
Perhaps the most visually stunning flower type is the huge ichimonji kiku which can be up to 20 cm across. This type has large, wide florets that are supported below by a disc of white paper. The Japanese royal family crest is patterned after this type.

Another large flowered form is known as ichimonji or komonshoukiku (the first is tough to translate, the second roughly means “noble family crest kiku section”). In this type the florets are limited in number and very broad (more than 2 cm across). The florets are arranged in a single flat layer on top of a circular piece of white paper since they will flop downward if left to their own devices. Floret count is from 14-16, with 16 being ideal since that is the official number in the Japanese royal family crest. Flower size is impressive in this class as well, often over 15 cm and approaching 20 cm in some plants. In the west these would fit into the “single and semi-double” class, though they would not be trained like a Japanese plant. Commonly seen in the sanbonjitate form, but is just as often grown with five to seven flowers per plant as with the kudamono types.

Thistle mum yellow
An unusual flower type called sagagiku are known as brush or thistle chrysanthemums in the west.

From here things get a bit more complicated. A class of flowers that are mid-size (quite variable, but ~ 5 to 12 cm in diameter) are called chuukiku (meaning “middle sized mum”) and can vary widely in form. These are normally used as potted plants, very typical of what you’d see in a western flower shop with multiple flowers per plant. Many within this group were in fact developed in the US during the 1950s, called pottomamu (western mum) in Japan. They also are used in futsuhana (meaning “Buddha flower”), which are arranged cut flowers for Buddhist alters as well as grave sites. These mid-sized mums are also used as cut flowers, commonly sold at any flower shop in bundled sprays. A small class of flowers (~1 to 3 cm in diameter) are known as kogiku (meaning “small mum”) and are used in a variety of ways, as we will see below.

All of these would fit a wide range of western classes including “decorative”, “pompon”, “anemone”, “spoon”, and so on. An odd type called sagagiku with spiky, upward pointing florets and mid-range flower size were developed in the Saga area of Kyoto, and are applicable to the “brush or thistle” class in the west.

Check out this video of the 2013 kiku matsuri at Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine:

Three more important training styles in Japan are senrinzaki, kengaizukuri, and bonsaizukuri. Usually small to medium sized flower types are used in these forms.

The “thousand flowered” kiku (senrinzaki) is a single plant that has been grown over a lattice and holds hundreds (to over a thousand) flowers at once. This is a very difficult form to attain and takes professional training to do. This is achieved by pinching back growth so that bud proliferation is maximized. The resulting form is a continuous carpet of flowers with no gaps, with each plant (from a single stem) being up to 4 meters across. Both small to medium sized flower types can be used to create this form, but smaller flowers prevail.

Cascade style mum
A cascading training style for mums in Japan is called kengaizukuri meaning “overhanging cliff form”.

A very common form is the cascading style known as kengaizukuri (meaning “overhanging cliff form”), seen at any kiku festival. In this case a single plant is trained onto a flat, slightly arching bamboo lattice structure varying in size, but typically two meter long, pointed at one end and swelling to a meter across at the center. The entire lattice is positioned so that it dips on the pointed end, creating the cascading effect. Like in the thousand flowered form, lots of pinching is involved in producing a continuous carpet of flowers. Typically small flowered types are used to make these.

The last group is bonsaizukuri, or the bonsai forms. These are always made with the smallest flowered mums (not more than 1 cm across) and normally don’t stand more than a meter high at most, with the lion’s share being much shorter. These can be grown into any number of bonsai types – small ones (komono, mame), cascading (kengai), and forest grouping (yoseue) being the most commonly done. The cascading forms are typically grown directly off of a shear rock (symbolizing a cliff) and often these are in small groups. The effect of these dwarfed mums is quite startling, looking indeed like normal bonsai, but with perfect, tiny mum flowers.

Another style is called kikuningyo, meaning “chrysanthemum doll”. During the Edo Period in Tokyo (then called Edo) people made large dolls using mums trained into human forms, usually of famous people and characters from folklore. They still are commonly seen at kiku festivals to this day.

The range of flower types and the training styles at any kiku masturi is fantastic, so I’ll finish this article with a bit of a photo blitz, giving you a taste of what can be seen. All were all taken at Daizaifu Tenmangu Shrine in Fukuoka Prefecture on the island of Kyushu, Japan. Enjoy.

bonsai chrysanthemum
Chrysanthemums are also trained in bonsai forms. Only the smallest flowered types are used to create these. Here is a forest grouping (yoseue).
kiku matsuri
Even though kiku can be in flower at various times of the year, kiku festivals are traditionally held in mid November. Each style of flower is shown on benches by class so they can be judged against one another, but there typically are a few mass displays as well. This group of atsumono is done in the sanbonjitate style.
spoon mum dance
The variety of mid-sized chrysanthemums is staggering. This variety called ‘Dance’ is classified as a spoon flower type in the west.
single petal mum
A startling single mum bearing just one row of florets.
Ichimonji mums
An amazing display of ichimonji type chrysanthemums at Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine. The amount of time and skill it takes to create such a display is incredible. Each flower in this photo is nearly 20 cm across (almost 8 inches).
football mum
How massive are atsumono kiku? Just take a look!
pompon mum
Pompon type chrysanthemums are elegant little things as well. By comparison to the huge flower types, these are tiny, only 5 cm across (about 2 inches).
spider mums purple
Finally, an elegant group of kudamono kiku grown in a loose cluster. Along with the ichimonji type, these are grown as a single flower, or (usually) in groups of 3, 5, or 7.
Kiku Japanese royal crest
The seal of the Japanese imperial family is the kiku flower, based on the flat, ichimonji type. The official number of flower segments on this seal (known as a mon in Japanese) was set at 16, so growers attempt to produce flowers with that number of florets – a real challenge. This seal can be seen at many shrines in Japan, and even on Japanese passports.

If you made it this far, I hope you enjoyed the show! If you ever are in Japan in November keep your eye out for these wonderful shows. You won’t be disappointed.


5 Replies to “Japanese chrysanthemum flower festivals, kiku matsuri”

  1. I am always in awe of the skill and patience of the Japanese. That bonsai forest of chrysanthemums is just mind blowing (Especially as it is a short lived display)

    1. Hi Maurice,

      I’m in total agreement. Japanese horticulture is very hands-on, requiring nearly daily input to produce finished plants that you see at shows, no matter what they might be. Some people are put off by this approach, but even if you don’t like the results, you have to give them credit for their skill.

  2. We were in Japan last Oct. 2014 and we were lucky enough to see the beautiful chrysanthemums, we couldn’t believe the size and colors one would be more beautiful than the other, it was unbelievable. We have been to 71 countries and Japan was the cleanest country of any. If you get a chance to go you need to go in the fall.

    1. Hi Boisy,

      I am sorry, but I am not in the business of selling plant material, not even seeds. The reason is simple, the cost and effort involved isn’t worth the profit. Sorry!


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