Reviews

Mum’s the word* in new plant book

Chrysanthemum by Twigs Way 2020. Reaktion Books Ltd.

Despite being a declared lover of plants, I didn’t include ‘mums’ – as chrysanthemums are commonly known – amongst the plants that I consider most interesting. It was therefore with some misgivings that I approached Chrysanthemum by Twigs Way (which book is here appraised). However, I’m happy to say that I overcame my prejudices, persevered and read the book – and was pleasantly surprised with what I discovered.**

Chrysanthemum is just typical…

As is typical for a title in publisher Reaktion Books’s Botanical series, Chrysanthemum is relatively short (214 pages), abundantly illustrated (with a colour picture on almost every other page) and well-written. Also typically, it’s a story that’s told well, and has considerably enhanced my admiration for, and appreciation of, this group of plants. Always informative are the Timelines that feature in most of the Botanical Series titles: Written from the perspective of the horticulturally-important members of the genus Chrysanthemum [the book’s primary focus], it ranges from the date of the first – recorded – cultivation of the flower in records of the Shang Dynasty of China (1600-1046 BCE), to 2016’s expansion of the UK’s National Collection of Chrysanthemums, via founding of the National Chrysanthemum Society in the UK in 1884, and John Steinbeck’s short story “The Chrysanthemum” published in Harper’s Magazine in 1937. References are included at the back of the book (by chapter – indicated by numbers in-text), along with suggested Further Reading, details of Associated Websites, and an Index. Chrysanthemum’s main text is divided into an Introduction and seven Chapters whose titles such as “Smuggling tea and chrysanthemums”, “In peace and war”, and “A literary bouquet” give some idea of what awaits the reader. But, by way of reminder, the book’s emphasis is very much the horticulturally-important members of the genus, the Chinese and Japanese chrysanthemums.

So, what did I discover..?

Having read Way’s book, I discovered many interesting facts about chrysanthemums, for example, that: although Chrysanthemum is a genus with a “mere thirty familiar species” (p. 9) [but see Kew’s Plants of the World Online database for the latest number], there are thousands of cultivars, hybrids, and varieties derived from the eastern Asian natives Chrysanthemum x morifolium and Chrysanthemum indicum; Chrysanthemum flowers [or, more correctly the massed flower heads that are a distinctive feature of the Asteraceae (Paula Elomaa et al., Hortic Res 5, 36 (2018); https://doi.org/10.1038/s41438-018-0056-8), the family of flowering plant to which Chrysanthemum belongs…] have no smell, and its name means ‘golden flower’ – an acknowledgement of the “cheering yellow colours of the original wild chrysanthemum” (p. 7);*** so deeply-embedded in the Japanese psyche is this flower that anthropologist’s Ruth Benedict’s seminal work on Japanese culture was entitled The Chrysanthemum and the Sword [But the real discovery was reading that the work was written at the invitation of the United States Office of War Information. Why? You’ll need to read the book!]; the flower has an interesting association with the tea ‘trade’ via Robert Fortune, Victorian plant explorer extraordinaire, whose local, lasting, living legacy in that regard is a small tea industry in his native Scotland(!); Charles Darwin’s book Variation of animals and plants under domestication owed much to the efforts of chrysanthemum breeders and ‘improvers’ whose ideas on artificial selection were incorporated into the tome; Chrysanthemums were a favourite subject of a well-known Impressionist artist who painted them on many occasions; and there is an object known as a chrysanthemum stone.**** However, and above all, I discovered that, although to me chrysanthemums are still not the most interesting of flowers, they nevertheless have a fascinating history and association with people. And, although I’m still not a fan it’s nice to note that others are.

Knowing when one’s beaten…

Credit where credit’s due; I’m grateful for Way for having changed the way I’ll now look at ‘mums’. I’m therefore happy to end my appraisal with the quote that began the book: “If you would be happy for a lifetime, grow chrysanthemums”***** (p. 7). Whilst I can’t say that I wholeheartedly endorse that sentiment, I do eagerly distance myself from the view attributed to British plant explorer and hunter Reginald Farrer who reputedly described chrysanthemums as “moulting mops dipped in stale lobster sauce“. In other words, to me, chrysanthemums are now – officially – interesting.

Summary

My views on older titles in Chrysanthemum‘s publisher’s Botanical series are documented (e.g. here, here, and here…). I’m very happy to advise that Chrysanthemum by Twigs Way continues that admirable tradition of plants-and-people publishing. Whilst chrysanthemum lovers should need no encouragement to read the book, I’d urge other ‘mumophobes’ out there to overcome their prejudices and give it a go.


* Of course, mum’s most definitely not the word: One should shout about Twigs Way’s book! This blog item’s title is a pun on the common name of the book’s subject matter.

** Which also goes to show that, however unlikely the plant, there are always loads of fascinating stories to discover and share.

*** Nowadays, a wide range of colours – in addition to the traditional yellow – are available for these flowers, although, there are still no true blue coloured ones. Apparently, a natural blue chrysanthemum is still the ‘holy grail’ of mum breeding – as is the true black tulip for aficionados of that bloom. For those who can’t wait for a blue mum to appear in nature or from traditional breeding, they may be pleased to note that a genetic modification approach by Naonobu Noda et al. (Science Advances 3(7):e1602785; doi: 10.1126/sciadv.1602785) has created the requisite blue bloom [more on this scientific advance here, here, and here]. For a review of blue flower colour, see Adrian Dyer et al., Front. Plant Sci. 11:618203; doi: 10.3389/fpls.2020.618203. For some lovely pictures of blue flowers – but not mums – see here.

**** Chrysanthemum stones are made of limestone with celestite or calcite inclusions radiating from a chert centre. Most often found in nature in riverbeds in China, Korea, and western USA, when polished and finished the stones apparently look like petrified chrysanthemums. And, as for their floral namesake, chrysanthemum stones are said to help “in times of transformations” (p. 189), and allow you to “reach your true potential” (p. 189).

***** Although one suspects that any group of plants could be substituted for chrysanthemums since the joy and wellbeing-inducing properties of exposure to plants (and other natural phenomena) and gardening are well-known and -documented (e.g. here, here, and in Charles Hall & Melinda Knuth’s series of articles (such as Part 4 in J. Environ. Hort. 38(2): 68–72, 2020; https://doi.org/10.24266/0738-2898-38.2.68)).

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