Mums the word for color

Bred by the floriculture trade to be foolproof, inexpensive and, let’s admit it, disposable, these “cushion” mums are often combined with a few pumpkins and maybe some Indian corn to make an easy splash of color for a fall doorway display.

Decorative mums with forms like spiders and pompoms also are grown in Atlanta by gardeners who stake each stem and carefully protect the blooms from insects and weather. Those enormous flowers remind folks of a certain age of corsages and football games.

But another type of mum, the Korean, is just coming into bloom in Atlanta gardens. Hardy plants with a relaxed way of weaving their stems through other garden plants, these mums are as carefree as any cushion mum.

Tough as nails, with no pest or disease problems, they’re hardy into New England and so worthy of a place in home gardens that the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx features a Korean chrysanthemum display garden in its Home Gardening Center.

About 10 years ago, all chrysanthemums were reclassified botanically, and these Korean mums are now technically not chrysanthemums at all but Dendranthema x grandiflorum. But everyone still calls them mums.

It’s generally agreed that Korean mums got their start in the 1930s when Bristol Nurseries in Connecticut introduced a series of hybrids under several names. The quintessential pass-along plant, adaptable to so many conditions, the mums spread from garden to garden.

As they spread, they acquired new names. If someone got the plant from their Aunt Sara, they might call it, ‘Sara’s Mum.’ In Madison, Ga., gardeners grow ‘Dr. Rigdon’ and a variety called ‘Madison’s Pink,’ which is probably the same mum available across the United States as ‘Ryan’s Pink.’

Goodness Grows in Lexington is the nursery that introduced ‘Ryan’s Pink’ into the trade. The single-petaled flowers have dusty lavender-pink petals and a bright yellow center. Rick Berry, one of the nursery’s owners, remembers getting his start of the plant from Decatur garden designer Ryan Gainey.

“This is a wonderful old plant that’s not been messed with too much,” Berry said. “Ryan chose it because of its flower color and the charm it adds to a garden in the fall.”

A similar variety, ‘Clara Curtis,’ is on the market, but Berry said ‘Ryan’s Pink’ is a better plant because of its vigor and stronger show of flowers. These are the kind of things nurserymen look for as they decide whether to propagate a particular plant. “We’re always looking for plants that have established themselves and done well in Southern gardens,” Berry said.

A few years after the introduction of ‘Ryan’s Pink,’ Gainey found a yellow form, which Goodness Grows sells as ‘Ryan’s Yellow.’ The pink form blooms at the end of September; the yellow blooms a little later. Both are vigorous spreaders and will make a larger and larger patch each year.

“They tend to stay evergreen, so they’re perfect plants for gardens in this area,” Berry said.

What Berry refers to as the tumbling, leggy nature of the plant makes it ideal for planting where it can cascade through a picket fence or from the top of a retaining wall. That’s one of the ways Atlanta garden designer Brooks Garcia of Fine Gardens put Korean mums to use in Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery.

A member of the landscape committee at Oakland, Garcia was working from a historical photograph showing mums planted along a retaining wall. “We re-created the photograph by planting mums in that same spot. We’re always looking for pictures showing us the plants used at Oakland,” he said.

In addition to yellow and pink, Garcia was able to find apricots, lavenders and whites in a variety called ‘Ryan’s Rainbow.’ Again, the story begins with Gainey, who found an interesting plant and shared it with a nurseryman.

The original plant had orange flowers and was to be called ‘Thanksgiving,’ but as it was propagated, the new plants blossomed in a range of colors. ‘Ryan’s Rainbow’ will be available to home gardeners in a year or two.

“The colors seem to change from year to year,” said Garcia, who calls this new variety “amazing.”

Berry and Garcia agree that Korean mums are easy to grow. They do best in well-drained soil with a little time-release fertilizer. Garcia suggests pushing the stems over as they grow, which causes the stems to bud all along their length and makes a bigger flower display.

The plants spread through underground stems or by rooting along the ground. They’re best divided in the spring or early summer so they can establish themselves and bloom that fall.

Grow these plants and soon you, too, might be passing them along to your friends. And in keeping with the nature of the Korean mum, one day there just might be a variety named after you.

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