History of the Chrysanthemum

by Jim Smith

Originally published in NCS Yearbook 1984

The origin of the chrysanthemum is a little obscure but it is known to have been cultivated for over 3,000 years. Probably originating about 500BC, it seems fairly certain that present day varieties had as their parents the two forms of chrysanthemum Indicum and chrysanthemum Sinese. Confucious, the great Chinese philosopher knew its blooms and described it in his work Li-Ki or Ninth Moon as 'the chrysanthemum with its yellow glory', other references referred to them as 'the golden flower'. The very early flowers were wild in character and in the main yellow in colour with possibly a few in the mauve-pink range. They were very small single flowers, far removed from the modern singles known today.

Early eastern influence is further confirmed by reference to a Chinese chrysanthemum specialist, T'ao-Yuan-Ming (AD365-427) who was said to be mainly responsible for many early improvements in cultural methods. Additional research reveals that a thousand years ago, Chinese poets were writing in praise of the chrysanthemum while replicas of chrysanthemums in their original form have been discovered on some fifteenth century Chinese pottery emphasising their long standing popularity. Although in the very early days the Chinese did cultivate the chrysanthemum, it was not until about AD350 that anything approaching a definite variety was involved. This was a bloom of small incurved form and at that time was recognised as the only good type of chrysanthemum, an opinion still shared by many at the present day. However, the Chinese were very reluctant to let the chrysanthemum leave their country but in AD386 it did arrive in Japan and it is to the Japanese that much is owed for the development of this wonderfully versatile flower.

In a relatively short space of time, the Japanese, with their love of floriculture realized the future potential of chrysanthemums. In the ninth century AD Emperor Uda founded the Imperial Gardens where various types of chrysanthemums were steadily developed. One of these was the forerunner of our present large exhibition blooms, still referred to by many growers as Japs. The workers in these Japanese royal gardens jealously guarded the secrets of cultivation for many centuries. It was not until the middle of the nineteenth century that a few plants finally reached Britain via Europe. During the twelfth century, so highly regarded was the chrysanthemum that many mikados decorated their swords with engravings of the bloom. One mikado instituted the 'Order of the Chrysanthemum' as a very high award for chivalry, seldom bestowed on anyone other than royalty. To set the seal finally on its importance, in 1910 the chrysanthemum was proclaimed the national flower of Japan.

The earliest reference to chrysanthemums in Europe was made in 1689 by a botanist named Bregnius. The following year a dutch scientist named Rheede described a cultivar growing in India with the very apt name of 'Gool Doodi', but it was to be another hundred years before successful cultivation took place in Europe. This happened in 1789 when a French merchant from Marseilles named Pierre Louis Blancard brought three cultivars home from China, only one of these survived and was named Old Purple, the first named cultivar to grow in the western world. Eventually this cultivar reached Kew Gardens and its description was featured in the Botanical Magazine of 1796. Great interest was now being taken in the western world and in consequence the then Horticultural Society of London gave encouragement for the importation of new cultivars from the far east.

In 1827, seed was successfully produced in Europe by a retired French officer, Captain Bernet and as many previous attempts by both English and French gardeners had failed, this date is of great historical importance in the chrysanthemum world. It is also on record that the first English raiser was Mr. Wheeler of Oxford in 1832, though this date cannot be confirmed.

In 1843, the Royal Horticultural Society commissioned Robert Fortune, a very noted botanist to proceed on an expedition to China in search of rare plants. On his return in 1846 he brought back among his general collection chrysanthemum minimum and Chusan daisy. The latter is believed to be the originator of pompons and for many years it proved to be the only chrysanthemum which would flower early enough for outdoor cultivation. Robert Fortune continued his interest in chrysanthemums and the first Japanese cultivars were introduced into this country by him in 1862. With varying forms, they were known as Dragons and ranged from one similar to a garden pink to another which resembled a camellia. What was very important with his seedlings at this time was that some turned out to be totally different in type to those previously known. Instead of incurving florets, some were reflexing and contained many new colours. They had much stronger stems and were dwarfer with better growing habit than the old small incurves which often were very tall with thin stems. It was the development of these reflexed cultivars which eventually gave flowers that could be used on a commercial basis for the cut-flower market trade.

The first English seedlings were raised in 1835 by Short and Freestone but one of the most enthusiastic supporters of chrysanthemums was John Salter, a name still well known in the present day. He established a nursery at Versailles in France in 1838 where he produced a number of seedlings, the two most notable being 'Annie Salter' and 'Queen of England'. These reigned supreme for over a century and were still listed in the N.C.S. register of 1960. The former was a late medium reflexed decorative, yellow in colour, while the latter was a large pink incurve, both introduced in 1847. In 1848, because of the French Revolution, John Salter was forced to return to England where he continued his improvements on chrysanthemums at a nursery in Hammersmith, London. He had quite a number of sports from 'Queen of England' one of which was primrose in colour which he named 'Empress of India'. It is interesting to note that in the N.C.S. official catalogue of 1896, sixty-eight large incurves were listed against twenty one reflexed: so the real foundations of the chrysanthemum that we know today were laid but it was really not until after the end of world war two that development came into its own.

We now have a very wide interest in the chrysanthemum in America, although it was not until after the beginning of the nineteenth century that they were introduced into the United States. The cultivar William Penn, a new seedling, was shown at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society in 1841. At this time chrysanthemums were considered to be just garden plants and it was not until 1860 that they became popular in the greenhouse. For many years the major influence in North America was from Japan. The predominance of spidery, quilled and fancy cultivars and the fact that these are still extensively grown is a tribute to this influence but gradually British exhibition cultivars are making their mark. This applies equally to Canada but it must always be appreciated that in these very large continents, extremes of climate are such that there is always likely to be a wide variation of types grown and different methods of cultivation.

It is not surprising that with such an historical background that the growing of chrysanthemums should lead to the formation of a National body. Already known throughout the world the role of the N.C.S. will inevitably increase. International conferences are now being held; my one regret is that this did not stem from action taken in England although a conference is to be held here in 1985. The interchange of ideas and information between America, Australia, Canada, Japan and New Zealand is now fully established. There is still a certain amount of reluctance to accept chrysanthemums in a number of European countries as anything other than funeral flowers.

Moving on to the Origins of the National Chrysanthemum Society ...........

The origin of our society, however, came from quite humble beginnings, its foundation being laid over a hundred years ago in a very small way. In 1846, the year Robert Fortune returned from visiting China, the Society was formed as the Borough of Hackney Chrysanthemum Society at Stoke Newington, London. In a report of the 1852 show there is mention of blooms six inches across; this would have been considered exceedingly large in those days. The finest variety, (a description I still much prefer to the now official term cultivar), was the previously mentioned 'Queen of England'. The society's early meetings were held at various inns with names such as 'Amwell Arms' and the 'Rochester Castle'. In 1874 the society's name was changed to the Stoke Newington and Hackney Chrysanthemum Society and three years later in 1877 the first show was held at the Westminster Aquarium. In 1884 a stage nearer the present day was reached when once more the society changed its name but this time it became the National Chrysanthemum Society; this I feel is likely to stay, the only possible alternative if there were anymore changes would be to 'The international Chrysanthemum Society', and that I hope is not beyond the realms of possibility.

Society meetings were still held at an inn; 'The Old Four Swans' at Bishopsgate in the City of London. Society exhibitions were transferred to the Crystal Palace in 1903 and carried on there until 1914 when this venue was taken over by the Admiralty. This huge Victorian building mainly of glass and iron was a very distinct landmark in South London for several decades. Many early BBC television broadcasts were transmitted from there and even today the tall television mast is still used near this site. Unfortunately this exhibition building was completely destroyed by fire shortly before the second world war, it is however doubtful if such a structure would have survived the bombing that was to follow.

The first of the London shows to be held at the R.H.S. Halls Westminster was in 1921 under the chairmanship of the late E. F. Hawes. The style of the shows in the twenties was very different from those we see today with many large multi-vase exhibits of large exhibition blooms reigning supreme as there were still many estates where gardeners, with large conservatories available, were able to spend their time growing great numbers of these blooms for exhibition. The early flowering types had not really come into their own at this time. It was not until 1938 that the Joint Early Flowering Committee was formed by the R.H.S. and N.C.S. with trials grown at Wisley.

The war quite naturally had a very great effect on chrysanthemum activities like everything else but in 1945 the late E. T. Thistlethwaite took over as part time secretary of the N.C.S. The individual membership totalled 475 and affiliated societies numbered 180. By 1959, on his retirement, the secretary-ship was full time job with a membership of 9,500 and affiliated societies of 1,400. Between the years from 1945 up to the present day has probably seen the greatest ever development of the chrysanthemum, particularly in the outdoor field and notably among the outdoor sprays and more recently the superb late flowering indoor sprays. Stanley Gosling succeeded E. T. Thistlethwaite as secretary of the society until his sad passing in January.

The chairmanship of the society seems to be a position that is held for many years at a time. The late J. B. Stevenson took over from E. F. Hawes for a number of years to be followed by Harry James and then very recently as you will all know by the present chairman Derek Bircumshaw. All of these gentlemen have contributed quite extensively to the development of the society and much is owed by us all to them. The society itself has not had it easy over the last few years. Inevitably increased costs have taken their toll. For many reasons membership has declined somewhat so that quite a number of unpleasant economies have had to be made. Fortunately there has now been an upturn in the affairs of the society but all is not yet completely won. It would be foolish if after a couple of years we reverted to the old happy go lucky system as if nothing had happened. Naturally I am only expressing my own opinions but such action would be a recipe for disaster. If finances and particularly investment can be maintained, or indeed improved, subscription rates should be able to be held or if possible even slightly reduced so that we may regain some of the lost membership. Already I hear murmurs requiring the restoration of certain medals and restoring the quality and number of publications to members. These are very admirable sentiments with which I fully agree: I only differ in my belief that the time is not yet right. What is needed is for capital investment to be increased even more so then, and only then, there will be sufficient interest available on these investments to restore the facilities we all desire and willingly sacrificed to save our society.

If I was asked to gaze into a crystal ball to fortell the future I think that one thing is very certain. Eventually it will have to be generally accepted that there will be more individual leisure time. Working weeks will have to be shorter without overtime and it is with this increased leisure time that the opportunity arises for the society to regain many of its former members and to enrol new ones. Another vital point that must also be accepted is that the society, contrary to popular belief, must exist for the keen gardener rather than the fanatical exhibitor although they are all very necessary and must play a big part in the affairs of the society. To make a lot of rules regarding showing sprays, both earlies and lates as has been done is not conducive to increasing ordinary membership. To quote one example a smaller grower just wishing to exhibit at his local show is not interested in the difference between a terminal and a compound spray. After all, who decided that a terminal spray is best, and why? Many good compound sprays are seen at local shows. Let us therefore only have basic rules and make it easier for ordinary growers. Another sphere for possible change which already has quite some support is why have earlies, October flowering and lates. Would it not be better just to register a cultivar by its type and colour which would then mean that any cultivar could be shown at anytime, it would be up to the grower to endeavour to grow for whatever show he wished. Admittedly there would still have to be some indication of the normal flowering period but personally if it was possible I would love to see Fairweather or George Hughes being shown in September assuming the form was still as good as that now normally seen in November. Finally, I consider the definition of the objects of the American National Society is something we could all adopt to our mutual benefit as it describes the attitudes which should be uppermost in all members minds. 'The objectives of the society are to improve the standard of excellence of the chrysanthemum, to promote a wider interest in the cultivation of the chrysanthemum, to encourage a greater use and display of the beautiful blooms of the many cultivars of the chrysanthemum and to increase the bond of fellowship between the growers of the chrysanthemum.' Maybe 1984 will see this all happen.