In France at this time of year the florist shops are full of colourful displays of chrysanthemums. But do not make the mistake of buying them for someone as a gift. Here as in most Catholic countries, chrysanthemums are reserved for placing on graves on La Toussaint, All Saint’s Day, on November 1st.
In China, where chrysanthemums were first cultivated, white chrysanthemums are also associated with grief. Here the flower is one of the Four Gentlemen, a quartet of noble flowers which also includes plum blossom, the orchid and bamboo. In the Victorian language of flowers, red chrysanths symbolised love, while yellow “mums” meant slighted love. Meanwhile in Australia, the chrysanthemum is often given to mothers for Mother’s Day, which in the southern hemisphere falls in autumn.
This week at Charleston, I was helping head gardener Fiona Dennis to plant a wonderful autumnal display of chrysanthemums left over from last week’s Small Wonder short story festival. The plants were chosen to match the earthy colours of the festival brochure in terracotta and tangerine.
We were working in a section of the walled garden close to the house and under an apple tree. First we forked over the patch to clear all the ground elder we could find. Then Fiona arranged the plants in a painterly drift.
Next, we planted wallflowers in front of the chrysanthemums, finishing off the edge of the bed with Dianthus, whose silvery foliage can be seen in Vanessa Bell’s paintings of this part of the garden.
I think the result looks like a beautiful firework display, accentuated by the red Sedum further along the path!