Chrysanthemums

By Hayley White

Reading time: 12 minutes

“If you would be happy for a lifetime, grow chrysanthemums”

– Unknown Chinese philosopher

Have you ever wondered why and how certain months were assigned flowers? Many of these flowers are relevant to traditions that go back hundreds of years.

By Hayley White

Reading time: 12 minutes

“If you would be happy for a lifetime, grow chrysanthemums”

– Unknown Chinese philosopher

Have you ever wondered why and how certain months were assigned flowers? Many of these flowers are relevant to traditions that go back hundreds of years.

As November comes around, so too does the month of the chrysanthemum. Sometimes called mummingtonsor chrysanths, they are flowering plants of the genus Chrysanthemum from the family Asteraceae. Like most flowers, there are countless different kinds of chrysanthemums, varying in size, shape, colour, and number of flowers per stem. There are 40 different wild species, thousands of varieties, and 13 types that each describe what the flowers most look like: single blooms, quilted blooms, spider blooms, anemone, pompons, decorative blooms, reflex and incurve blooms, reflex mums, brush/thistle chrysanthemums, unclassified, spoon mums, cushion mums, and miscellaneous mums.

The chrysanthemum flower has a special importance in some Asian countries and originates in China. Asian cultures have often been partial to displaying large numbers of flowers in massive bouquets and the practice of displaying plants with hundreds of blooms goes all the way back to the Song dynasty (960-1279).

Chrysanthemums, known in ancient Chinese as Chu and ju hua, meaning the essence of the sun, were first cultivated in China over 3000 years ago – as evidenced by writings found from 15th century B.C.- and arrived in Japan in A.D 8th century. The Japanese loved chrysanthemums so much that the emperor claimed them as Japan’s national symbol and used the flower for his national seal and crest, specifically the 16-floret variety called Ichimonjiginu. Other family seals for prominent Japanese families feature certain types of chrysanthemums called kikumons – kiku meaning chrysanthemums and mon meaning crest. A fitting tribute to this significant flower is as the highest decoration that can be awarded to someone for distinguished service or chivalry to the nation: the Supreme Order of the Chrysanthemum.

In fact, chrysanthemums are so special they have their own festival. The Chongyang Festival (known also as Chongjiu, Double Ninth, or Chrysanthemum Festival) is a national day celebrated in China, Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Macao. It is one of the major festivals for this culture as it is celebrated on the ninth day of the ninth lunar month, usually between October and November. The ancient book Yi Jing or the Book of Changessays that the number 9 is a yang number, meaning it has masculine and positive energy. Thus, it was believed that the ninth day of the ninth lunar month was especially auspicious. Chrysanthemums usually bloom during this time and they also signify the sun and the light (immortality) and longevity in Japan. Drinking chrysanthemum wine is a common tradition during the festival because it was believed during the Song dynasty that it could prolong people’s lives.

In China, the flower signifies happiness, nobility, and permanence because of the associated health benefits. Women used to stick them in their hair and hang its branches by their doors and windows to ward off evil, block out disasters, and ward off insects.

There is a little market town in south China called Xiaolan by the Pearl River Delta where the chrysanthemum has a particular significance. Allegedly, the original settlers were drawn to the area by the flower seven centuries ago and played a major role in starting the Chrysanthemum Festival in the 18th century (Siu, 1990). Because Xiaolan’s town government persisted with the Chrysanthemum Festival despite restrictions from the Chinese Communist Party, the town was given the name ‘Chrysanthemum Town’ or Chu-Hsien. Hotels and major state department stores also carry the name and local bakeries advertise chrysanthemum-flavoured egg rolls for export (Siu, 1990). Despite some of the opposition it has encountered, the Chrysanthemum Festival has continued for over 200 years.

Chrysanthemum flowers were first used as herbs and medicine in ancient China. Brewed as a tea, it has a lovely golden hue and a flavour similar to chamomile. The ancient Chinese thought it had the power of life. Legend has it that the boiled roots were used as headache relief and it could be used to treat respiratory issues, early stages of fever and cold symptoms, sinus issues, high blood pressure, and hyperthyroidism. People who like using the flower say it can help calm nerves and reduce inflammation. The Chinese categorised their medicine based on energetic properties, of which chrysanthemums have a mildly cold energy. This means they help energy channels that lead to the lungs, liver, spleen, and kidneys (Healthline, 2017). Chrysanthemum is a good source of minerals and vitamins A, B6, C, K, riboflavin, and thiamine. Its leaves, petals, and stalks can be blanched and used in salads or on their own. It is also traditionally used in wine, sake, pancakes, cakes, and egg rolls.

Chrysanthemums play a major part in the art and literature of ancient China. In art, they are known as one of the Four Gentlemen or Four Noble Ones. The Four Gentlemen is a collective term referring to four plants: the plum blossom, the orchid, the bamboo, and the chrysanthemum. They have been used in Chinese painting since the Song Dynasty and were later adopted by artists in Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. They are used as recurring themes for their symbolism of uprightness, purity, humility, and perseverance, amongst other virtues. They also represent the four different seasons – plum blossom for winter, orchid for spring, bamboo for summer, and chrysanthemum for autumn – and are used to depict the unfolding of the seasons throughout the year.

In literature, Shen Fu was a writer in the Qing Dynasty who was best known for his autobiography Six Records of a Floating Life written in 1809. In it, he writes about the scenery and gardens he visited, and he talks about how to grow and display chrysanthemums. He says that an odd number of the same coloured chrysanthemums should be put in a vase, and if placing multiple vases, to use an odd number, with no more than seven vases to a table (Goody, 1993).

Eventually, chrysanthemum was introduced to Europe in the 17th century where it was given the name ‘chrysanthemum’ by Swedish botanist, Karl Linnaeus. The Greek chrysos meaning gold, was put together with anthemon meaning flower, coining the golden flower or chrysanthemum. Despite being brought over from Asia where the flower was praised and almost worshipped, the European significance ended up being vastly different. Depending on the type and colour, Europeans associated incurve chrysanthemums most often with death and are only ever used to adorn funerals and graves. This meaning came from France, Italy, and southern Germany where it is linked to one of the most important Catholic holy days acknowledging the autumnal rites for the dead: All Saints’ Day (la Toussaint in French).

All Saints’ Day, celebrated on November 1st, is a day of remembrance when people honour and pay their respects to those who have passed away. While it does not come directly from the Bible, All Saints’ Day is a seventh-century Christian tradition created by French King Louis the Pious, son of Charlemagne. In the year 853, he instituted the All Saints’ Day feast to celebrate various martyrs. Eventually, the celebration spread throughout Western civilisation. It is on this day that people buy and distribute chrysanthemums to commemorate the dead.

Because they were so often used as offerings to the deceased, even outside of All Saints’ Day, trying to give anyone from these countries a bunch of chrysanthemums would be the height of offence. Jack Goody, author of The Culture of Flowers (1993), says that when about to give a Chinese colleague a bouquet of yellow chrysanthemums, his Italian friend warned they are fiori dei morte or flowers of the dead and told him not to. Similarly in France, Goody visited a florist who had labelled chrysanthemums as ‘marguerites’. When asked, the owner of the store said that he labelled them as such because otherwise the flowers would not sell. Goody (1993) says chrysanthemums are no more welcome in Czechoslovakia than they are in Italy or France. Because of this symbolism, outside of All Saints’ Day chrysanthemums were only given in times of grief, loss, or bereavement.

Alternative significance for chrysanthemums also popped up in other countries and cultures. In Australia, white chrysanthemums are commonly shared or worn on Mother’s Day every May when they are in season. This is because of the nickname they were given – mums. In Iran, chrysanthemums are associated with the Zoroastrian spiritual being Ashi Vanuhi or Ashi Vanghuhi. She is a female Yazad, an angel who presides over good blessings and rewards. In America, various cities have chrysanthemums as their official flower as well as a handful of college fraternities and sororities.

Chrysanthemums and their wide range of colours hold special meanings that are well known worldwide. Nowadays, the chrysanthemum symbolises happiness, fidelity, friendship, honesty, and friendship. The white chrysanthemum symbolises loyalty and honesty. Its yellow counterpart symbolises neglected love and sorrow, in contrast, red symbolises love and deep passion. Violet chrysanthemums are those you would give to someone to wish them well.

In New Zealand, chrysanthemums generally flower in November and so, we have the reasoning behind why they are the flower of this month. It’s interesting to know, too, how a beautiful and multi-faceted flower like the chrysanthemum came to have such a rich cultural background. While they are more geographically significant to East Asian and European countries, chrysanthemums hold special importance everywhere. And if you happened to be born in November, they are a birth flower to be proud of!

 

Sources: 1. How chrysanthemum tea benefits your health, healthline.com 2. The culture of flowers, CUP Archive 3. Recycling tradition: Culture, History, and Political Economy in the Chrysanthemum Festivals of South China. Comparative Studies in Society and History

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