Most people think of chrysanthemums, or mums as they are known, as the most ordinary and ubiquitous of fall plants. Lined up by the dozen, perhaps with asters and pumpkins, mums are sold at every nursery and home center — even the grocery store — this time of year.
But for the past three years, the New York Botanical Garden has shown how the humble, overused chrysanthemum can be trained and shaped into highly stylized pieces of living art. The chrysanthemum is Japan’s national flower and the emblem of the Japanese Imperial family.
“Kiku” in Japanese, it has been cultivated and trained by experts into codified forms through floricultural techniques dating back 1,500 years. See these techniques at “Kiku in the Japanese Autumn Garden,” the Botanical Garden’s third and final fall show celebrating the ancient horticultural traditions of Japanese culture. It runs until Nov. 15.
(Photo by Raimund Koch, from NYBG)
Many of these forms and techniques — such as Ozukuri, or Thousand Bloom, in which a single flower is trained to produce hundreds of simultaneous blossoms in a massive, dome-shaped arrangement — can be seen in the current show. Most of the exhibit is held in the courtyards surrounding the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory.
(Photo by John Peden, from NYBG)
For the last 11 months, three gardeners at the Botanical Garden, including Olivia Dombowski of Pelham, have been working behind the scenes to painstakingly put the show together. They have grown the hundreds of mums from tiny cuttings, transferring them to ever-larger containers and then training and shaping them into cones, columns and spheres.
The most tedious part of the preparation, Dembowski says, is during July and August when they carefully cover the mums with black plastic tarps — from 3:30 each afternoon until 8 the next morning — to trick them into blooming early.
“That way, we’re forcing them to set their blooms early enough for the show,” she says.
Working with Yukie Kurahina, the head gardener for the show, Dembowski and another part-time worker also grow a whole backup set of mums that can be swapped out, as needed, later in the show.
This second set of plants, Dembowski explains, was left uncovered during those two months in summer. “You learn to have a lot of patience — it’s very tedious work,” she says.
Along with the chrysanthemums, visitors will find a wide range of Japanese plants on view, including many that will grow well in their own gardens. Look for crimson and orange Japanese maples, the centerpiece of so many suburban front yards, along with perennials, ferns and grasses native to Japan.
Gardeners interested in learning about bonsai, the ancient Japanese art of growing dwarf plants in containers, will find a large sampling of plants on loan from Shanti Bithi Nursery in Pound Ridge.
Beyond the Haupt courtyards, the kiku show will feature interactive programs for children, gardening demonstrations, a garden-wide tour showcasing Japanese plants that look particularly good in fall and weekend performances by thundering taiko drummers.
If you go
What: “Kiku in the Japanese Autumn Garden”
When: Through Nov. 15
Where: New York Botanical Garden, Fordham Road and Exit 7W of the Bronx River Parkway, the Bronx
Information: nybg.org, 718-817-8700