Exquisite Flora in Autumn
Green leaves ignite, transformed by a kaleidoscope of incinerating colors—devil-red, burnt tangerine, caramelized amber, searing saffron, and smoldering crimson-purple. The air is impregnated with the aromatic perfume of orchard fruits ripening in the fleeting flush of the sun’s warm light. Hazy, slanting rays gild the late season glory in the garden. Surrounded by flowers of dissipating beauty and juxtaposed against the dazzling brilliance of autumn foliage, we are urged to spend every possible moment savoring our gardens before the onset of winter.
Blossoms thrown in autumn, as opposed to those of spring and summer, are perhaps the most keenly appreciated. Our rambling ‘Aloha’ rose embowering the front entryway abounds in blooms in June, flowering again and again throughout the summer. With a twinge of melancholy, I cherish most Aloha’s lingering remontant rose—inhaling deeply the sensuous fragrance when approaching or upon leaving our home, knowing all will be dormant in only a few short weeks. Manifold members of the composite family hold their flowers well into fall. Forming a substantial clump (four feet wide and equally as tall) is a passalong from a generous friend. From a few cuttings of this heirloom chrysanthemum (Chrysanthemum ‘Single Apricot Korean’), with apricot pink-tinted, daisy-like single flowers, we now have a patch of our own to share with friends. Arrayed with a single row of ray flowers encircling the nectar-rich cadmium yellow disk florets, the Korean daisy is host to sundry late on-the-wing pollinators, including butterflies, bees, and beetles. The form is loose and lovely; opposite in appearance to that of the ubiquitous blobs of mums commonly seen in autumn.
Chrysanthemum ‘Emperor of China’ begins its lovely tableau in mid-fall and continues to bloom through the first hard frost. Plum rose with silvery highlights, the quills shade paler toward the outer margins. When the plant is in full bloom, the rich green foliage shifts colors to vibrant hues of bronze and scarlet red. The ‘Emperor of China’ exudes a delicious lemon-spice fragrance noticeable from some distance.
As with asters, it is helpful to pinch the tips of each shoot to encourage branching and more blossoms. Repeat this process at each four- to six- inch stage of new growth until the middle of July, or when the buds begin to develop. ‘Emperor of China’ is hardy through zone six and thrives in full sun to light shade in well-drained soil. This cultivar forms a 2 and 1/2′ mound in only a few years. Give the plant a top dressing of compost and mulch after the first hard frost.
An ancient variety of chrysanthemum originating from China, the ‘Emperor of China’ resembles and is thought to be the chrysanthemum depicted in early Chinese paintings. Chrysanthemums are also grown for their medicinal properties, and their purported magic juices were an important ingredient in the life-prolonging elixir of the Daoist. Fragrant chrysanthemum tea was considered good for the health, and tonic wine was brewed from an infusion of their petals.
Chrysanthemum tea is a tisane made from dried chrysanthemum flowers. The flowers are steeped in boiling water for several minutes, and rock sugar or honey is often added to heighten the sweet aroma. Popular throughout East Asia, chrysanthemum tea is usually served with a meal. In the tradition of Chinese medicine, the tisane is a “cooling” herb and is recommended for a variety of ailments including influenza, circulatory disorders, sore throats, and fever.
Although thought to be rich in healing properties and lovely in form, a more modest well-being was conferred by the vigorous blossoming of the chrysanthemum. Perhaps the late flowering chrysanthemum suggests their connection to a long life, for other plants have finished flowering just as the chrysanthemums begin.
The techniques for learning to paint the orchid, bamboo, plum blossom, and chrysanthemum comprise the basis of Chinese flower and bird painting. They are referred to as “The Four Gentlemen” and are thought to symbolize great intellectual ideas. The orchid is serene and peaceful, though sophisticated and reserved from the world. Bamboo is vigorous and survives throughout the seasons, forever growing upright. The plum blossom expresses yin-yang dualities of delicate and hardy, blooming through snow and ice to herald the arrival of spring. Chrysanthemums continue to flower after a frost, are self-sufficient, and require no assistance in propagating themselves.
China owes its astonishing wealth of plant life to a combination of geographical incidents. The mountains escaped the ravages of the great ice caps and unlike much of Europe and North America, where many plants were wiped out, plant species in China continued to evolve. Additionally, the foothills of the Himalayas are moistened by soft winds from the south, creating an ideal climate for alpine plants. In this warm and moderate environment three different floras– that of the colder, drier north; that of the sub-tropical south; and that of the alpine species—all mingled and crossed freely for thousands of years.
Ernest Wilson, one of the world’s greatest plant hunters, was not the first collector to explore this botanical paradise, but his determined efforts to push through to remote areas led him to the “richest temperate flora of the world.” From 1899 to 1911, Ernest “Chinese” Wilson sent the seeds of more than 1,500 different plants to the United States and England. Altogether his collection numbered 65,000 plants, representing about 5,000 species, all gathered from the wild. Through his exploration, and the work of the nurseries for which he collected, more than a thousand plants were established for Western cultivation. Despite the wealth of flora collected by Ernest Wilson and his fellow plant hunters, Chinese gardens remained wholly unaffected. Although shiploads of plants were sent to London, St. Petersburg, Paris, and Cambridge, Massachusetts, Chinese horticulturists continued to develop plants their ancestors had loved and that had long since been domesticated. The tradition of conferring qualities of morality to plants and plants’ allegorical to intellectual ideas made the newly collected wild plants unsuitable for the Chinese garden.
The love of flowers was and continues to be a passion among the Chinese. Trees and plants are genuinely loved as living creatures.
Enjoying flowers with tea is the best, enjoying them with conversation the second and enjoying them with wine the least. Feasts and all sorts of vulgar language are most deeply detested and resented by the spirit of the flowers. It is better to keep the mouth shut and sit still than to offend the flowers. —from a Ming Dynasty treatise on flowers Walters Art Museum
The idea that flowers can be offended by bad manners reflects the belief that the world we inhabit is an organism in which all phenomena interrelate. By the same reasoning, someone who drinks tea from a peach-shaped pot will live longer (peaches symbolize longevity), and someone who dips his writing brush in a peony-shaped bowl will have good fortune, as the peony is a metaphor for success and wealth.
Several passages from above were excerpted from Oh Garden of Fresh Possibilities! (David R. Godine, Publisher).