By Rizaniño “Riz” Reyes
NORTHWEST AISAN WEEKLY
When people think of chrysanthemums, more commonly referred to as “mums,” they think of the colorful bunches of daisies seen in just about every floral department in a grocery store. But it is in autumn when these brilliant blooms naturally flower and many Asian cultures admire and hold the late season flower in very high regard as a symbol of longevity and joy.
In late October, a beautiful exhibition took place in Capitol Hill’s Volunteer Park Conservatory to celebrate this beloved flower and, sadly, not many people even knew about it. There’s an art to growing chrysanthemum and some fear that there just isn’t as much interest as most growers are getting older.
In September, the conservatory re-opened its doors to the public. For many months, visitors seeking socially distanced interactions outdoors would visit the park, but only got to peek into the 100+ year old Victorian glasshouse, hoping for a glimpse of the tropical treasures it held. What was also missing were their special events. Shortly after re-opening, they began to welcome local plant groups for plant sales and exhibitions. These normally draw busy crowds, but this time around, numbers were limited, vaccination cards were checked, and social distancing was maintained. However, the Evergreen Chrysanthemum Association decided to offer a show of their member’s finest blooms. Typically a juried competition with the best blooms winning awards and trophies, this year’s show was small, yet still extraordinary in many ways and the only awards given were voted by the public as “People’s Choice.”
In attendance was a horticultural phenom who has made the Pacific Northwest her home and chrysanthemum is just one of her specialties. Yoko Arakawa has always had a special touch when it came to growing plants. Trained in the science of her work, both here and in her native Japan, the artistic component of it set her apart as she spearheaded the production of plants from the famed Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, about an hour northwest of Philadelphia.
She was known for leading the incredible “One Thousand Bloom” chrysanthemum display, known in Japan as Ozukuri. It involves meticulously training a single plant and through painstaking pruning, wiring, and careful cultivation, it will produce a giant dome of perfectly placed flowers to open all at the same time.
Walking through the humble exhibit with Arakawa, local horticulturists wonder if she can achieve such a feat in Seattle. Not having the space and resources of the well-endowed estate where she worked for 25 years, she reminisces about the process, different varieties she grew, where they were from, and how they were produced for the grand autumn exhibit.
Seeing chrysanthemum blooms was like visiting old friends. Arakawa’s infectious enthusiasm and vast knowledge is something David Helgeson, senior gardener for Volunteer Park Conservatory, picked up on right away when they first met a few months ago.
“We would be so honored to have Yoko work with us to create such a masterpiece…maybe we’ll aim for a 500 mum bloom to start,” he laughs.
But to have such expertise in an art form that’s so rare and beloved by many is in danger of being lost. Both Helgeson and Arakawa, along with members of the Evergreen Chrysanthemum Association, commiserate about the lack of youth and diversity in growing specialty plants as the average age of their group is 60 and above.
“It seems like they just don’t have the time,” one exhibitor said. “They may have interest in the flowers, but it’s just too time consuming for most people to grow and show chrysanthemums. But that doesn’t mean that they can’t learn a little along the way and enjoy them. You don’t have to be retired like me to grow mums.”
“The problem is young people do not have the space to grow many plants, especially in the city,” Arakawa said. “You can always grow chrysanthemums in pots, but maybe some will be interested in training a chrysanthemum into a bonsai. It’s actually very easy in a sunny apartment terrace or small garden,” she emphatically stated.
Thanks to the highly skilled gardeners at Volunteer Park Conservatory and the Evergreen Chrysanthemum Association, beautiful mums are regularly a part of the indoor displays every year before the holiday exhibits are brought out. They have the classic “garden mums” flanked by exhibitions varieties in various classes—incurves, spiders, decoratives, anemones, pompons, quills, and dramatic cascades all carefully grown in their production facilities and even Arakawa graciously applauded their efforts.
“They have many special varieties that are very hard to find that were imported from England years ago, but we can no longer get certain varieties due to a white rust disease,” she said.
It will take continuing to educate the public through shows like this to help preserve the art of growing plants.
Volunteer Park Conservatory is now open to the public from Tuesdays through Sundays between 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Admission is $4 for adults, $2 for teens 13-17 years, and children 12 and under are free.
For more information about the Evergreen Chrysanthemum Society, visit ecamumclub.org.
Rizaniño can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.