It was on this Friday morning that I managed to eke out an hour from a rather over stuffed calendar to pick up my collection of Chrysanthemums from the local nursery. This amazing member of the plant family (affectionately referred to as the ‘mum’ in western lands) produces blooms in an amazing variety of colors, sizes and shapes and when used as a cut flower in vases, creates a beautiful indoor effect that lasts for an extraordinary long time.

Lest I become a victim of my fellow enthusiasts’ anger, let me clarify that I was forced to provide my ‘mums’ with a temporary foster home, because my ‘mali’ of ‘umpteen’ years association, gave notice and decided that he could make a better name for himself by slitting the necks of ‘farm chickens’. Left high and dry by this doyen amongst gardeners, I had no option but to provide a home for the plants where they could receive professional care. In doing so I was happy in the knowledge that come November, we would be reunited once more.

Chrysanthemums were first cultivated in China as a flowering herb as far back as the 15th century BC and over 500 varieties were catalogued by the year 1630. The plant is well known in Chinese and East Asian Art as one of the ‘Four Gentlemen’ and occupies a significant place in the ‘Double Ninth Festival’. It is believed that the flower may have been brought to Japan in the Eighth Century AD and adopted as the official Imperial Seal. Perhaps that is the reason that it is celebrated and honored through the Japanese ‘Festival of Happiness’.

The ‘mum’ discovered America (and not accidentally) three centuries after Columbus - somewhere in 1798, when a gentleman by the name of Colonel John Stevens imported a variety known as ‘Dark Purple’ from Britain, reaffirming the notion that barring ‘hamburgers’ and ‘Hollywood’ all things American may have an English origin. The good Colonel introduced the flower as part of an effort to “grow attractions” within Elysian Fields in Hoboken, New Jersey. He did this with little realization that the little ‘Red Coat’ would restore shattered honor (resulting in American Independence) by successfully storming homes and gardens of the former British Colony.

It is said that Chrysanthemum cultivators are special people, with qualities of resilience and fortitude, hitherto unmatched. This is perhaps correct as the true magnificence of this wondrous work of nature can only be savored after hard labor that involves not only tending and watering, but feeding the plant with right type of manure. This last ingredient is messy, more so when the ideal kind made from pigeon or poultry droppings is used. I tried the last mentioned item once in my flower beds, only to realize the true magnitude of my better half’s wrath and the fact that I dropped a couple of notches on the social visitors scale, because of the distasteful odor that pervaded my premises for days afterwards.

What many people don’t know is that the Chrysanthemum holds its own in the daily lives of the human race. Yellow or white chrysanthemum flowers of some varieties are boiled to make a sweet drink in China, while in Korea, rice wine flavored with chrysanthemum flowers is fairly popular. Steamed or boiled Chrysanthemum leaves are used as flavoring herbs in Chinese cuisine and the petals are added to Chinese Snake Meat Soup to enhance flavor, while in Japan, small chrysanthemum flowers are used as a Sashimi garnish.

The bloom of the Chrysanthemum plant produces Pyrethrin. This chemical attacks the nervous systems of all types of insects and inhibits female mosquitoes from biting. It can be used without dangerous side effects otherwise produced by synthetic pesticides and is far less toxic to mammals and birds. This natural pest killer is non persistent as it is biodegradable and decomposes easily on exposure to light. NASA Clean Air Studies indicate that this plant also reduces indoor air pollution. In some parts of the World, the Chrysanthemum flower represents honesty, positivity and cheer, while on one island continent, it symbolizes Mother’s Day.

All said and done, the wonderful Chrysanthemum is undoubtedly the prince amongst flowers and it is for this very reason that I am dedicating this week’s piece to it, in the hope that those of my readers, who have yet to feast their eyes on this wonderful gift of Nature, may do so now – for it is in the month of November that the ‘prince’ showcases its glory.

n The writer is a historian.