Human Flower Project

Kiku: NY Botanical Garden’s Blockbuster Show

Judy Glattstein, bulb expert and gardener, takes us to the New York Botanical Garden for the first-ever exhibition of traditional kiku (chrysanthemum) outside Japan. Thank you, Judy—here’s the floral equivalent of the King Tut Show!


Ogiku, displayed in diagonals of white, pink, or yellow

the colors used in the Japanese emperor’s horse bridle

Photo: New York Botanical Garden

By Judy Glattstein

“To everything there is a season.” And to chrysanthemums, there’s now: the autumn.

Short-day plants (sounds better than “long-night plants,” I suppose) need the seasonal cycle of shorter days and longer nights to bring them into bloom. Once this was discovered, some curious person tried artificially shading chrysanthemums in summer. Confused but responsive, the plants obediently flowered in July. We can now have chrysanthemums year-round, rather obviating their autumnal connection.

In summer though, a chrysanthemum is just another daisy, lost in the crowd of Echinacea, Gaillardia, Helianthus, Leucanthemum, and more. While potted chrysanthemums are available year-round, the bulk of them appear in autumn, top-heavy pots of flowers for sale in garden centers and nurseries, supermarkets and farm stands. Control of bloom time, and a squirt of Cyclocel™ (a plant growth regulator that shortens the internodes, resulting in compact plants) are enough manipulation for most growers.

imageYukie Kurashina of the New York Botanical Garden trains a chrysanthemum into shape according to principles of kiku artistry she learned from Yasuhira Iwashita, master of Shinjuku Gyoen Garden

Photo: New York Botanical Garden

Then there’s the Japanese approach to growing kiku. The first cultivated varieties of kiku were introduced to Japan from China in the 8th century A.D, and the Japanese have been growing chrysanthemums ever since, more than a thousand years. Japan’s national flower, the chrysanthemum appears on the crest of the Imperial family.

The growing method? In November or December take a small shoot. Pot it up. Grow it on. Fertilize, water, pot on, pinch, support, continue training week after week, month after month. Meticulous attention to detail has masters of chrysanthemum cultivation spending a year training plants that will bloom for a couple of weeks before starting the whole process over again. These professionals train chrysanthemums in three widely different styles for autumn display at botanical gardens and public parks. The plants are shown in specially built pavilions called uwaya, built of bamboo and cedar to provide both staging and shelter for the flowers.

There is ozukuri, thousand blossom style, wherein a single chrysanthemum plant is trained to produce hundreds of simultaneous flowers in a massive, dome-shaped array. Planted in specially built wooden containers called sekidai, they require a complicated internal supporting framework. Each individual flower is fitted with a supporting collar as it begins to open and show color.

Single stem ogiku, with one perfect bubble of a flower balanced on top, can reach as much as six feet tall. They are displayed in precise array, diagonal lines of white, pink, or yellow flowers which traditionally are the colors used in the emperor’s horse bridle, tazuna-ue.


Photo: New York Botanical Garden

And then there are cascading kengai, small-flowered chrysanthemums trained on a boat-shaped framework covered with netting. One plant, careful training, a year’s time - and the result is a peacock’s tail of flowers up to six and a half feet long.

Before we all start booking tickets and flitting off to Japan - relax. It would be a fabulous experience to visit places such Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden in Tokyo for its kiku exhibition, but you can manage this without the passport. Kiku Master and Chief of the Chrysanthemum Department Yasuhira Iwashita of Shinjuku Gyoen graciously accepted Yukie Kurashina of the New York Botanical Garden as a student. She spent six months under his tutelage, returning for additional guidance in understanding, learning, and practicing the complex techniques of cultivation that produce magnificent, traditional kiku. And this fall, after years of collaboration followed by twelve months of hands on work, the New York Botanical Garden showcases the most extensive display of chrysanthemums grown in the Imperial style ever presented outside Japan.

Do I sound like a press release? The more people whom I inveigle, invite, coax, to see this exhibition, the more delighted I’ll be - and so will they. I talked to Yukie about this project early in the Spring. I had a behind the scenes tour of kiku in training in September. In October I led a tour of the exhibition (See Judy’s October Garden Diary at BelleWood Gardens, her website, for lots more). And I’m planning to go back at least one more time before the exhibition closes.

Kiku: The Art of the Japanese Chrysanthemum opened on October 20. It closes on November 18. The 108 ogiku will be replaced with fresh plants midway through the event, as will all the kengai and the ozukuri. The two courtyards wherein they are displayed each surround a large rectangular waterlily pool. The last few waterlily flowers, frost-kissed lotus and browning reeds offer a true feeling of autumn. One courtyard is embellished with bamboo, rustling in each passing breeze. The other courtyard has Japanese maples in their autumnal colors. There are a few bonsai in the courtyard, many more in the adjacent majestic Enid Haupt conservatory.


[Japanese maple] from Kakyo Tokyo meisho, 1881

Woodblock print by Utagawa Hiroshige III (1842-1894)

Courtesy of the LuEsther T. Mertz Library, The New York Botanical Garden

Photo: New York Botanical Garden

There’s also Plants of Japan in Illustrated Books and Prints in the William D. Rondina and Giovanni Foroni LoFaro Gallery of the LuEsther T. Mertz Library, an exhibit of rare books and botanical prints from the Library’s collections. The cool, low light conditions (necessary for the health of the books like Josiah Condor’s treatise on Japanese garden design, wood cut prints by Hiroshige III, and 19th and 20th century Japanese nursery catalogs.

I was there for five hours. I’m impatient to be back. Come. You’ll be just as astonished, impressed, and fascinated with these kiku. Those lumpy blobs of chrysanthemums we plop on our doorsteps with a pumpkin, and call it autumn - you’ll never look at them in quite the same way.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 11/05 at 11:23 AM


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