2008-11-13 / Local & State

Mums Add A Splash Of Color To Dreary Fall Gardens

By Ginny Smith THE PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER

DOYLESTOWN, Pa. (AP) - Potted chrysanthemums, mums for short, are everywhere this time of year - perfect little domes that pop into place like autumn cupcakes.

If you're new to the joys of "the queen of fall flowers,'' you might be surprised to know that it truly does have a royal history, dating back to the 15th century B.C. in China. And that those supermarket pots, though blanketing the landscape, represent but a tiny fraction of the world of chrysanthemums.

"Whether we're talking about chrysanthemums or vegetables, breeders are breeding for a mass market,'' says Grace Romero, research director for W. Atlee Burpee & Co. at the company's Fordhook Farm in Doylestown.

Romero is noodling around with all sorts of new and different mums in her test garden, where she's searching for the chrysanthemum equivalent of a great-tasting winter tomato. She's looking for tougher, prettier, longer-lasting, strongerstemmed and shapelier mum plants to breed and eventually sell to home gardeners as alternatives to the mass-produced ones.

"Even if it's a nice shape and even if the color is nice,'' Romero says of potted mums, "it's just not as interesting. And mums don't have to be bushy and dense.''

In their defense, the populist mums of fall bring seasonal symmetry, comforting ritual, and a last bit of color before frost to patios, storefronts and fading flower beds. Often referred to in general terms such as garden, fall or hardy mums, they also have three qualities that quicken the pulse of gardener and non-gardener alike: They're no work, they're cheap, and they require no cleanup.

Despite the "hardy'' label, most won't make it through the winter. They're usually treated as annuals - and, like poinsettias, get tossed when the season changes.

Something to be said for all that, and Jean and Ralph Parks of Media are happy to say it. These champion mum-growers - in that sense, true mummers - proudly display a 20-foot courtyard walkway they've framed with neat ribbons of homegrown, garden-variety mums in yellow, bronze and red.

They grew all 250 of them from cuttings, and on a recent nippy day the sunshine and breezes seemed to heighten their brightness - especially with the couple's white-brick house as background.

"The pots you get at the supermarket have raised awareness of mums. Everyone's got them now,'' says Jean Parks, who enjoys the orderliness of her courtyard design.

Even for the cognoscenti, then, mums are the go-to plants of autumn. "There's nothing else this time of year but asters,'' Parks says, "and they're pretty much done now.''

The couple also cultivate a host of fussy exhibition- or florist-type cutting mums in a wood-frame shelter in the backyard, grooming them, pinching rambunctious stems to thicken the plant, and manipulating hours of sun and shade to ease them into dramatic bloom at just the right time for competitions.

They easily parse the 13 official classes of chrysanthemums, which are determined by flower form. Some names - spider, anemone, quill, spoon or pompon - are quite descriptive. Others, like incurve or reflex, have meanings only insiders could guess.

But one thing everyone appreciates about this huge plant group is how very different the different mums can be.

You'll find blooms in the shape of delicate daisies and tiny buttons, baby porcupines, bottle brushes and fireworks. Flowers range from less than a half-inch to eight inches wide, and plants can be low-growers or five feet tall.

The word chrysanthemum comes from the Greek chrysous, meaning golden, the original daisylike flower's color. Today, mums have been bred in shades of pink, purple, red, bronze, orange and white.

From its origins in China, the chrysanthemum was introduced into Japan in the eighth century, to Europe in the 17th, and to North America by a Hoboken, N.J., nurseryman named John Stevens in the late-18th.

Kiku, or chrysanthemum, remains the symbol of the Japanese royal family. In this country, it has no such associations. But it's still popular.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, mums are the third best-selling cut flower, after roses and carnations, and third in potted-plant sales, after poinsettias and orchids.

Burpee's Romero is out to expand the public's knowledge of mums, including the stunning salmon-pink, daisy look-alike called "Sheffield'' or "Sheffield Pink.''

She has planted a few inside the perennial garden at Fordhook Farm, but to tell the truth, they look a little lonely in there. Just outside the garden, though, is another story.

All along the wooden fence, she has fashioned a beautiful border of airy Sheffields. Romero swears she tossed a dozen plants in there two years ago and, other than mulch, hasn't done a thing to them. They've spread like mad.

Unlike their wimpy relatives, they're tough. They can take a real winter. But we're not there yet. It's only a drizzly fall day in Doylestown.

Still, Romero's mums are a vision of pink, apricot and yellow blush. Like fresh-faced young ladies, they're dancing in the light rain and flirting with the purple butterfly bush behind the fence.

You realize they're distracting you from the dried-up brown stuff this garden, like yours, is filling up with.

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