Rikumo Visit: The Chrysanthemum Festival

The valleys of Longwood Gardens stand in the Brandywine Creek Valley, about an hour’s drive from Philadelphia.  For those of us that dwell in the city, its meadows, woodlands and greenhouses have become a favorite spot for wandering and taking in the sights of nature.  This month, over 16,000 chrysanthemum blooms fill up the Longwood greenhouse in celebration of the Chrysanthemum Festival, a horticultural program that honors a flower with a deep cultural importance in the East. In Japan the chrysanthemum is so emblematic of national identity that it adorns seals, passports, and even imperial crowns.

Chrysanthemums naturally bloom in November, when other flora has begun to wither.  Watching how this radiant flower blossomed within the dying landscape, the Japanese associated its blooms with endurance and rebirth.  Similar to how the cherry blossom characterizes ephemeral beauty, the chrysanthemum came to symbolize longevity and rejuvenation; at one point, they were even fabled to be the herbal version of the fountain of youth.  Cultivating their blooms has been a highly respected Japanese art form ever since.

 The Chrysanthemum Festival began in China, where the people would drink rice wine sprinkled with chrysanthemum flowers for long life and happiness.  Today, Chrysanthemum Day is one of five ancient sacred festivals actively celebrated in Japan.  Chrysanthemums were and continue to be widely used and consumed: its petals and young shoots found their way to the dinner table, its flowers and leaves can be brewed into tea or used for medicinal purposes.  The flower is prized for its size and golden hue; in fact, the English word chrysanthemum is a combination of the Greek words for "gold" and "flower".

For this special event, gardeners spent weeks grooming and training more than 16,000 chrysanthemums using traditional growing techniques from Japan and China. Here are a couple of species we found as we wandered inside:

Single: Long, daisy-like petals
Decorative: Large with many rows of petals, often with petals curling toward the center
Cushion: Aptly named for the shape of its medium-sized blossom
Anemone: Also cushion-shaped, but with the center covered by shorter petals of a darker color
Pompon: Small, firm globe of tight petals (the tiny ones are called “buttons”)
Spider: Long tube-shaped petals with curved ends
Spoon: Flatter blossom with rows of spoon-shaped petals.

The resulting Chrysanthemum Festival is an intensely cultivated display, featuring pagodas and clouds of mature chrysanthemums.  Strewn about the greenhouse and floating in the pool were collections of traditional red lanterns, adding to the magical atmosphere of the festival.  In this way, Longwood's Chrysanthemum Festival is both an ode to Japanese floral artistry and an example of American adaptation. While a container of one mum variety in Japan would contain one plant (and probably three to four flowers), the containers at Longwood are full to the brim! 

We recommend taking a weekday afternoon to stroll within the rooms of the Longwood Conservatory and admire the blooms.  Away from the crowds and weekend noises, the Chrysanthemum Festival offers a rare opportunity to witness cultural discourse in botany.  But hurry! Unlike the flowers, the festival closes Sunday, November 22nd.