Majestic Mums

THE REAL DIRT

September 19, 1993|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

Fall approaches, bringing chrysanthemums in all their splendor.

Big deal.

I am allergic to the most handsome of fall flowers. Show me a mum and head for the hills. My reaction is swift and violent. I sneeze. I wheeze. I break out in a sweat.

I've been this way since fifth grade when I lost the class spelling bee. The word I missed was chrysanthemum. The teacher gave me three cracks at it. I struck out. Then I cried. In class.

More than 30 years later, I've still not fully recovered. Sometimes when I see mums, I tremble, stammer and hyperventilate. I dare not grow the plants for fear of being mistaken for a quivering bowl of Jell-O.

Pity. Chrysanthemums have such a majestic presence, say those who grow them.

"My greatest reward is watching these buds unfurl into flowers that are twice as large as any football corsage you ever gave a girl," says Ruth Ann Waite, an award-winning chrysanthemum hobbyist who raises 350 of them at her home in Las Vegas, Nev. "Mums are a celebration for your eyes in the fall, when most other plants are dying, dead or gone."

Waite, 67, fusses over her plants constantly. A part-time secretary, she quit her regular job to throw herself into gardening. "I've got to have time for my mums," she says.

Many of her chrysanthemums grow chest-high in containers filled with potting soil, compost and fertilizer. Waite blends the ingredients in a cement mixer. The system works: Her mums produce flowers as large as 8 inches across.

Mums are remarkably versatile: The National Chrysanthemum Society has members in all 50 states. With proper care, mums will blossom in the arid Southwest, or in a swimming pool in Broomall, Pa.

"We like to float the plants in an inner tube in our backyard pool in the fall," says Betty Buckwalter. The blooming mums are placed in a protective frame that fits inside the tube, which is anchored to the bottom of the pool by a 50-pound iron weight. The floating plants make a unique conversation piece, says Buckwalter, an avid grower whose mums have won numerous prizes.

Raising mums that will bloom in time for competition is a challenge, she says, because the plants' biorhythms rarely coincide with chrysanthemum show dates. So growers try to trick the plants into blooming by covering them with sheets of black plastic for 12-hour intervals. This triggers the budding process in mums, which think that fall has arrived.

Maintaining this ruse causes sleepless nights for serious chrysanthemum hobbyists.

"We've set the alarm to take care of plants late at night, or in early morning," says Buckwalter.

"But all this talk can scare prospective gardeners away from raising mums," she says. "They are really fairly easy to grow."

Native to China, where they have been grown for 2,000 years, chrysanthemums are second only to roses in sales in this country. They're also a hit in Japan -- the "red sun" on that nation's flag is really a chrysanthemum.

"The Japanese cover whole hillsides with mums of specific colors, so that they resemble real paintings when they bloom," says Charles Huff, a Midwesterner who has been selling chrysanthemums for 40 years. Huff's Gardens, in Burlington, Kan., lists 650 varieties, including some old-fashioned types that have been surpassed by newer hybrids.

Chrysanthemum is a Greek word meaning golden flower, but hybridization has so far turned out mums in every color but blue.

"This is the queen of fall flowers. There is little else to equal it," says Ted King, owner of King's Mums in Clements, Calif. His catalog features 250 varieties, from cascading mums to bonsai mums to tree mums that are trained to grow on single stems.

Garden mums will thrive "in spite of what you do," says King, with these exceptions:

* Don't overwater plants. Mums hate wet feet.

* Pinch off the tips of plants regularly until mid-July, to encourage bushy growth.

* Mulch mums in winter, when temperatures are cold. Rooted cuttings that are purchased and planted in spring are more likely to survive a freeze than potted mums that are transplanted in the garden in fall. Cuttings are cheaper, too.

"Chrysanthemums have a fresh, almost medicinal smell, which make me think of fall and all the things that go with it," says King.

Mum's the word, he says, no matter how you spell it.

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