The Garden Gate: Mum's the word in fall beauty

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By Ellen Probert Williamson

We are noticing now that the trees are beginning to show their fall colors, the blossoms of Queen Anne’s lace are starring the fields, the golden yarrows and bright zinnias are adorning our gardens, and all the roadside produce stands are bright with chrysanthemums.

Looking ahead to fall festivals, Halloween pumpkins are beginning to add their colorful notes to all the stands.

Famous 17th-century astrologer, botanist and physician Nicholas Culpeper wrote a long treatise about yarrow in which he claimed many virtues for this plant, which is too often regarded as a weed.

The Indians used yarrow to make a herbal tea to aid those suffering from ailments of the digestive system. It contains many vitamins and minerals, which we now know are important.

Try pouring a pint of boiling water over a handful of golden yarrow blossoms to yield a spicy and delicious tea.

In the language of flowers — which those in Victorian times knew well — chrysanthemums signify love and truth. This plant originated in China, and Confucius wrote of its “yellow glory” as early as 500 B.C.

Chrysanthemums were the favorite flower of the Mandarins, the ruling class of the Chinese. They became a familiar emblem on porcelain, in temples and on textiles, wood and metal work. The Chinese cherished this flower and tried for many years to confine the “yellow glory” to the mainland.

In the 4th century, it eventually found its way to Japan. It became that country’s most popular emblem. It is the official flower of Japan and appears on the flag as a blossom with 16 petals radiating from a central disc.

The Mikado designated the chrysanthemum as the country’s official emblem in 797 A.D. It created the Order of the Chrysanthemum, the highest order which can be bestowed.

For a long time, this flower was permitted to be grown only in the Imperial gardens and those of the nobility.

Both the Chinese and the Japanese believe placing a chrysanthemum petal in your wine glass will promote a long life. The Chinese insist it has the power to turn white hair back to black.

This flower was brought to Europe by merchants in the early 18th century. Several varieties were brought to England by way of France and Holland and soon became a staple plant in English gardens. At a commemorative celebration in London’s Crystal Palace in 1859, 1 million chrysanthemums set in tiers served as the floral decoration.

Corn, marigolds, oxeye daisy and feverfew in the English countryside are considered to be weeds or wild herbs. They are relatives of the chrysanthemum.

These flowers arrived in America in 1796 with John Stemes of Hoboken, N.J. By 1822, there were 26 varieties listed in a catalog published by a Long Island nursery.

Mrs. Alpheus Hardy, wife of a Boston sea captain, discovered a young Japanese stowaway on her husband’s ship in 1892. She intervened on his behalf and took him to Boston, where she sent him to college. When he returned to Japan, he sent her a large selection of these floral cuttings, which soon were to be found flourishing in New England gardens.

 More recently, Michigan florist and garden authority Vincent dePetris became famous for his dramatic and successful hybridization of chrysanthemums. Careful and judicious breeding has produced several hundred varieties in many shapes and colors.

Long regarded as the queen of the falltime garden, today they are available the year round. Potted chrysanthemums brighten many kitchen windowsills all winter long with color, scent and gourmet seasoning for many foods. They add a subtle, aromatic flavor to salads and other dishes.

Late-summer zinnias and marigolds are flourishing now in our gardens. Cosmos and yarrow compete with the chrysanthemums for attention.

Grapevine wreaths have grown in popularity, perhaps because they are so versatile. Embellish them with silk, paper, dried or real flowers, as well as nuts, fruits, ribbons and a variety of other things, and they become the perfect decoration for almost any room. They are very easy to make.

The little tendrils the vine uses to attach itself to fences or arbors will hold the wreath together as you wind the pliable vines around and around. Once the wreath is made, hang it where there is a circulation of air. A stairway is a good place. It will dry quickly. The vines will become a dark grey-brown, and the new wreath will be ready to decorate.

Grapes have long been considered a good-luck gift, a symbol of the wine of the Eucharist, a token of peace and abundance, and a symbol of Canaan the Promised Land.

It is little wonder that grapevine wreaths are used frequently on front doors, as wall decorations and as gifts. Fresh chrysanthemums twined into a grapevine wreath would make a beautiful decoration in any room, or for a special occasion of almost any kind. The season’s floral beauty is the perfect expression of the early autumn season.
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Ellen Probert Williamson lives in Kingston. Her column appears regularly in the Roane County News.