Sandy’s Garden ... names and chrysanthemums

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John … or Jock? James ... or Jim, or Jimmy, or Jamie? Edward … or Ed, Eddie, Ted or Teddy?

We often have lots of names which refer to the same person. I call my Italian friend Sandra … ‘Sandra’. But her mother calls her Alessandra, her husband calls her Allie and her daughter calls her Mama. So what name do we use to talk about chrysanthemums? Do we call them chrysanthemums, or chrysanths or even mums? The Greek language provided the words that are used in the flowers’ botanical name … which is Chrysanthemum … for chrysos means ‘gold’ and anthos means ‘flower’. Gold flower … fair enough. But, just as I have more than one forename before my surname on my passport and on other official documents, the chrysanthemum, whose family name is Compositae, has what we might term middle names as well. Thus the florists’ chrysanthemum, the one we are all familiar with, grown for its large, showy blooms, is Chrysanthemum x morifolium, which tells a botanist that this is the chrysanthemum which has leaves resembling those of the mulberry tree. But … and how often does that little, awkward word appear just when one thought that everything was clear? … botanists have decided that ‘the chrysanthemum which has leaves resembling those of the mulberry tree’ would be better described as Dendranthemum x grandiflorum, ‘the flowering plant which has mulberry leaves and large, showy blooms’, dendron being the Greek word for ‘tree’, anthos being ‘flower’ and grandiflorum meaning ‘with large blooms’. But I think I shall continue to call them ‘chrysanths’.

And Chrysanthemum x morifolium or Dendranthemum x grandiflorum … the chrysanth which we all know … has more than large blooms to be proud of. “The Royal Horticultural Society’s Encyclopaedia of Herbs and their Uses” tells me that the chrysanthemum is ‘a bitter, aromatic herb that lowers fevers, soothes inflammation, dilates the coronary artery (increasing blood flow to the heart) and inhibits the growth of pathogens. The flowers are used in the preparation of herbal medicines that are used in the treatment of hypertension (high blood pressure), coronary artery disease, angina, feverish colds and liver-related disorders. The Chinese, who had been cultivating chrysanths for two-and-a-half centuries before the plants became known to the Western world, made infusions of the petals to make wine and medicine, and drank the morning dew from the flowers to promote longevity. They also regarded the plant as being symbolic of a scholar in retirement; and it was by this route that chrysanths became associated with Zen Buddhist monks … the largest group of scholars … who took the plant to Japan where the Mikado decided that the sixteen petals of the flowerhead looked like the rising sun; and since this was his symbol, he decreed that the chrysanth should be regarded as his flower.

But the talents of the chrysanthemum are far from exhausted. Perhaps because of its association with longevity, chrysanths became associated with funerals and were once known in Britain as ‘widow’s flowers’, their powerful scent reminding people of the smell of the church during funeral services. The blooms were further favoured by church flower-arrangers because of their size, showiness and willingness to stand erect in vases or in arrangements; and a further characteristic was soon associated with them, that of keeping the congregation awake and clear-headed during the sermon. And this supposed relationship between a clear head and chrysanthemums is found in Korea, where people make a tea from boiled chrysanth roots which is said to overcome depression; and the Chinese drink tea made from the dried flowers when they wish to clear their minds to give deep thought to a problem. As ever, I do not endorse any of these claims: but chrysanth tea to clear the mind? There’s a thought!

Sandy Simpson, Polmont Horticultural Society