There’s so much more to chrysanthemums than the ubiquitous “garden mum”. Spider chrysanthemums are a wonderful and weirdly beautiful example. Like common “garden mums”, they trace their origin to hybrids of Chrysanthemum indicum, first developed in China more than 2000 years ago. Over the centuries, these so-called “florist’s chrysanthemums”, known botanically as Chrysanthemum morifolium, have diverged into a dizzying array of forms and colors, some of them bordering on the bizarre.
Which, brings us back to spider mums. As described by the National Chrysanthemum Society, this class of florist’s chrysanthemums produces blossoms with “long tubular ray florets which may coil or hook at the ends.” The masses of spaghetti-thin, curling “petals” do indeed have a spidery, or medusa-like, or starburst effect – spectacular in some cases, and almost sinister in others. Their distinctive form makes them favorites in wedding bouquets and other special-occasion floral arrangements.
As with most of the 13 classes of Chrysanthemum morifolium, spider mums have been bred and selected mainly for cut-flowers rather than for garden use. Consequently, few can tolerate frozen winters. Their October bloom times also leave them vulnerable to fall frost, limiting their usefulness as annuals to regions where frost comes a bit later (USDA zones 6-7 and warmer). Where suitable, they make choice additions to cut-flower borders and attention-grabbing (but relatively fussy) alternatives to common garden mums.
In the garden, spider mums are best planted in spring after the danger of frost has passed. They thrive in full to partial sun and friable, fertile, humus-rich soil. Numerous cultivars are available by mail order from specialty growers, with a few sometimes finding their way to local nurseries and greenhouses. Among the most notable are ‘Descanso’, which bears huge medusa blooms in shades of bronze and apricot, the white-flowered ‘Chesapeake’, and ‘Fleur de Lis’ with its fountains of lilac-pink “petals”. To find these and other spider mums, visit King’s Mums.
Of course, in whatever climate, spider chrysanthemums can be grown the traditional way: in containers. Young plants purchased in late winter or early spring will prosper indoors or out (after danger of frost) in a coarse, fertile, compost-based potting mix, such as Fafard Professional Potting Mix. A deep 4-inch pot is good to start, but vigorously growing plants should be moved to larger containers every couple of months. After plants flower, they can be cut back and kept relatively dry in a cool, frost-free location.
For the full traditional effect, these mums should be disbudded. This involves pruning out all but a few stems and removing most or all of their side shoots. Only one to several flower buds are left to develop at the tip of each stem, resulting in exceptionally large blooms – just the thing to wow greenhouse visitors or chrysanthemum show judges. If you don’t disbud, you will get more flowers, but they will be smaller.
Several U.S. public gardens – including Smith College Botanical Garden in Northampton, Massachusetts, and Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania – offer the ultimate in chrysanthemum “wow”, staging lavish displays of hundreds to thousands of florist’s chrysanthemums, grown (and disbudded) to perfection. Spiders, Anemones, Quills, and all manner of other chrysanthemums take center stage at Lyman Conservatory at the Botanic Garden of Smith College from November 5 to 20, and at Longwood’s 4-acre conservatory from October 22 to November 20. These chrysanthemum celebrations will convince even the most jaded observer that there’s far more to mums than the cushion mounds at the local garden center.