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A look at the hidden world of exhibition chrysanthemums

Many show-mum growers raise plants in pots, but David Eigenbrode cultivates his in raised beds with in a growing structure in his backyard in Frederick, Md.
THE WASHINGTON POST | THE WASHINGTON POST

The chrysanthemum might be the floral finale of the season, but the gardener has to work hard to make this flower rise to the occasion.

Even the most skilled use of forms, colors and combinations with looser companions — grasses, for example — barely fixes the underlying problem.

The garden mum is too stiff and awkward, and the blooms are either garish or muddy, or both, which is quite a feat. Although the perfume of a rose can summon an idea of paradise, the chrysanthemum’s fragrance conjures a den of feral cats.



But I speak of the common landscape chrysanthemum, used in the fall much as lantana and petunias are in the summer, as bedding plants or for pots.

There is another world of chrysanthemums hiding in plain sight, to wit the once familiar and now more obscure spectacle of the exhibition mum. Or mums, because there are a dozen or more forms and scores of varieties that are variably cute, exotic or simply stunning. All of them are interesting and fulfill this plant’s promise. Cinderella shall go to the ball.




This year, the ball takes the shape of the National Chrysanthemum Society’s annual show, occurring in 2015 in Northern Virginia. At the Hyatt Fairfax Hotel at Fair Lakes today and Sunday, there are mum varieties with only faint echoes of the garden article. Some single blooms are the size of your head, others form tubular petals with openings redolent of tiny spoons, others raise the flower to a delicious tangle of threadlike petals.

These forms from East Asia go back hundreds of years, and master growers there and in the West have raised mum cultivation to art. Think of the exhibition as the premiere dog show for chrysanthemums.

If the hidden chrysanthemum is so beautiful, you ask, why doesn’t everyone grow it?

The answer lies in the Frederick, Md., backyard of 82-year-old David Eigenbrode, where you will find a wooden structure that resembles a picnic pavilion. It has stood for the past 25 years as his incubator of sorts for the exhibition chrysanthemums that have been a large part of his life for 32 years. The structure is screened on its sides and netted above to keep out pests. For the past month or so, the roof has been draped in clear plastic to protect the developing blooms from the elements. Raising exhibition mums doesn’t cost a fortune, but it takes method, time and the simple presence of their grower.

The blooms begin as rooted cuttings in spring, and as they grow, most fanciers plant them in larger pots. But Eigenbrode’s approach is to plant 150 chrysanthemums in six discrete raised beds each measuring 3 by 10 feet.

Now, in show week, most of the mums are about six feet tall or more, trained as ramrod-straight vertical stems, one or two to a plant.

Apart from providing basic growing needs – good soil, water, fertilizer – the mum grower must also spray against fungal disease and monitor for pests. Beyond that care, however, there are two other key aspects to raising these plants that sets the exhibition mum apart and contributes to its rarity.

The first is the constant removal of flower and vegetative buds that appear in the nooks where leaf stalks meet the main stem. This keeps the plant from turning into a bush and allows it to spend its energy developing one gigantic flower. Show mums presented as “sprays” have several blooms on a stem.

When you are raising dozens of plants, this pruning regime is “a continual job. I do it every day,” Eigenbrode said. Some growers pinch out the buds with their fingers; others use a knife.

The other task is tricking the chrysanthemum into thinking fall started early. Professional growers do the same for garden mums, as they do to poinsettias to get them to “bloom” in November and December.

Eigenbrode rigs cages over each of his growing beds, and in August he covers them in black plastic from 6 p.m. to 8 a.m.

After two weeks or so, the chrysanthemums develop their flower buds.

If you didn’t do this, the mums would bloom around Thanksgiving and would be at risk from freeze damage.

Many varieties take 10 weeks for flower buds to develop into magnificent blooms.

Classes of show mums

Show mums fall into more than a dozen classes. Here are some of the types you will see at a chrysanthemum show.

Irregular Incurve: These varieties are among the largest mum blooms and are named for the way the petals or florets curve upward to form a ball. Some of the lower petals are looser.

Reflex: Another giant-flowering mum but with petals curving downward. Blooms can be as large as 12 inches across and often resemble bird plumage.

Anemone: Semi-double petals with a pronounced central cushion.

Pompon: These are small spheres whose petals form a tight, entrancing pattern.

Single and semi-double: Mums are members of the daisy family, evident in this class where you see a central disk and radiating petals or rays.

Decorative: Decorative mums are smaller and looser than the largest types, with the upper petals tending to incurve and the lower ones to reflex.

Quill: This is a fully double mum with a hidden center and open floret tips.

Spider: Spiders have threadlike florets that tend to form coils or hooks.

Spoon: Similar to semi-double flowers, but the tips of the florets are spoon-shaped. The center is visible.

Thousand Bloom: Thousand Bloom, or ozukuri, is a Japanese technique in which hundreds of blooms are raised on one plant to form an enormous dome of flowers. You won’t see this at the national show, but you can see specimens at fall mum exhibitions at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pa., and the New York Botanical Garden.

Spray: A spray is not a type but a way of growing show mums to present half a dozen or so blooms on one stem, adding to the challenge of producing a show-quality mum.

Bonsai: Some competitors grow mums as bonsai. While dwarfed trees can take years to form convincing bonsai, the mum version is raised in one growing season


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