Stroke, stroke, stroke. With gentle hand, Ralph Parks grooms his entry for the big show. Stroke, stroke, stroke. Oops. His soft camel's hair brush snags a tiny insect. Parks examines and discards the bug, frowning. Better he should find it now than judges during the competition. Stroke, stroke, stroke.
What is Mr. Parks brushing? His dog? His cat?
Neither. He is grooming a chrysanthemum plant.
"Sometimes I feel like a hairdresser," says Mr. Parks, a gardener from Media, Pa.
Autumn is a hectic season for Mr. Parks and other competitive chrysanthemum growers. At a time when most homeowners are admiring the mums in their own yards, Mr. Parks is racing across the country, exhibiting his best blooms at chrysanthemum shows from Pennsylvania to California.
Traveling with flowers can be a hassle. Flying to a show in Atlanta, Mr. Parks found that his favorite mum would not fit under his seat on the plane.
"I'll take care of it," said a stewardess, who buckled the flower into an empty seat. Mr. Parks flew tourist, but his mum went first class. Of course, it won best-in-show.
Mr. Parks, 68, admits a fascination with chrysanthemums. He grows 400 of them and spends several hours a day feeding, watering and brushing the plants.
"You try not to make it your only interest, but it's hard sometimes," he says. "There are a few of us nuts around. Why mums? They are inexpensive and easy to propagate. You can pay $200 for a daffodil bulb, but mums seldom cost more than $3 per cutting."
Stiff-stalked chrysanthemums are putty in the hands of enthusiasts like Mr. Parks, who can mold them into virtually any shape, including bonsai. There are cascading mums, fan-shaped mums and tree mums, with 2-foot trunks exploding into bursts of color at the top. And the flowers are as big as . . . well, let
Galen Goss explain.
"The biggest bloom I ever saw was as big as a lady's head," he says.
Mr. Goss is secretary of the National Chrysanthemum Society, a 1,700-member organization which extols the virtues of a plant that is revered in its native Orient. In Japan, Chrysanthemum Day is a national holiday.
"Buy a mum in the fall and you've got instant beauty: no muss, no fuss," says Mr. Goss, who tends 90 plants at his home in Fairfax Station, Va. Come fall, his yard is awash in red, bronze, white, yellow and purple flowers of 13 different shapes and sizes.
Indeed, the chrysanthemum is a remarkably versatile plant. It spruces up salads and football homecoming queens, and helps decide spelling bees. Certain varieties of mums contain pyrethrums, natural insecticides which can be extracted to paralyze and kill bugs.
Few weekend gardeners truly respect the chrysanthemum's potential. We see it as a plant that just squats there all summer, an uninteresting blob of green in the flower bed. It is the ugly duckling of the garden until autumn, when everything else takes a swan dive and mums steal the spotlight.
Given good drainage and average soil, even beginners can grow mums.Harvesting giant, award-winning blooms is another matter, says David Eigenbrode, a chrysanthemum enthusiast in Frederick.
Growing big mums is like growing big pumpkins, says Mr. Eigenbrode: You strip the plant of all but a few flowers, which in turn produce monstrous results. Mr. Eigenbrode's largest was a 14-inch spider mum, Pink Perfect, which garnered several awards two years ago.
"Much of the fun is in the anticipation," says Mr. Eigenbrode, who drives to chrysanthemum shows with his plants buckled up in the back seat of his car.
Competition at those shows can be fierce, says Bob Knox, a grower from Houston, Texas.
"People have been known to enter flowers with broken stems that are held up with pins," says Mr. Knox. "It's very unethical and rarely happens."
Most of the country's top growers will compete in the National Chrysanthemum Show Oct. 26-27 at the Radisson Plaza Hotel in Alexandria, Va. Admission is free.
Mr. Knox, who has grown mums for 35 years, says the best tips on plant culture are available from the National Chrysanthemum Society, 10107 Homar Pond Drive, Fairfax Station, Va., 22039; (703) 978-7981.