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Mum's the Word!, by Paula Panich Next Page

     On an overcast early August morning, rubber-booted Steve Sojkowski toils in the middle of month number 8 of his annual 10-month project-preparing for the opening night of the Annual Fall Chrysanthemum Show. The affable Sojkowski excuses himself for a moment to assist a helper operating a power hose. The visitor is surrounded by hundreds of chrysanthemum plants in 5-inch pots, in the greenhouse once used for the Plant Physiology classes.
     In addition to the pots, there are chrysanthemum plants growing in eight rectangular boxes, five of which are trained up a curving trellis made of chicken wire. Three of the boxes are fitted with conventional wooden trellises. Small wooden stakes in these boxes read: 'Jane Harte' Daisy Yellow, 'Ann Canfield,' and 'Ann Jones' Bronze Spoon.
     Most of the plants are the products of plant breeding experiments by generations of horticulture students at Smith College. "We look for those that are fast growing and vigorous," says Sojkowski. Smith
Mum short-stemmed variety      The chrysanthemum is a member of the Compositae, or composite family. Each flower head is actually a cluster of many flowers, composed of a central group of short disk flowers surrounded by rings of longer ray flowers. Chrysanthemums, unknown to the West until the seventeenth century, are classified into nine categories according to the type and arrangement of disk and ray flowers. For example, the "reflexed"
Biology Professor John Burk estimates the tradition of Smith's Mum Show began sometime in the 1920s. "Someone from the class of  '40 was here recently," Sojkowski says, "and asked if her chrysanthemum was still here. I got a kick out of that."
     Sojkowski and other members of the Botanic Garden's staff are part of a 2,500-year-old chrysanthemum gardening tradition. The plant was first cultivated in China, and the first written mention of ornamental chrysanthemum growing was at the time of Confucius, in the sixth century B.C.E. The unusual thing about the annual show at Smith College is what is going on with the chicken wire-a painstaking process to train the flowers into cascades, which resemble, according to Botanic Garden staff, "hanging waterfalls of flowers." Because of the labor- and time-intensive process, this chrysanthemum training takes place at perhaps only two or three other botanical gardens in this country. In Japan, however, where the chrysanthemum has flourished since it was brought there from China 1,700 years ago, the show tradition still flourishes, and a number of Japanese cities hold spectacular annual exhibitions.
     Sojkowski begins preparation for the cascades each January. (This is his seventh year at work in the greenhouse, his thirteenth at Smith College.) "We take divisions of mother plants," he says, "and place the 6-inch pots under lights-they would go to bud otherwise." They are then put in 8-inch pots, and trained on bamboo poles. In June, two divisions are put into the rectangular troughs, with wire supports that are set at a 45-degree angle to the sun. Six leaders are pinned to the chicken wire and are carefully pinched to encourage branching and to increase the number of buds. The tips of these leaders are not pinched at all; the rest of the plant will be pinched repeatedly until the second week in September. "Every pinch," says Sojkowski, "means another flower bud." Also in September, the troughs are placed on barrels, and the cascades are slowly lowered each week until they are hanging vertically. The plants trained on conventional trellises will become "walls" of flowers.
spacer chrysanthemum consists of ray flowers that curve downward into an umbrella shape; the "quill" has tubular ray flowers that radiate from the center of the head.
     Each year at the Chrysanthemum Show, new hybrids produced by the previous year's horticulture class are exhibited, and visitors are asked to vote for their favorite. The winning hybrid becomes a part of the permanent collection at the Lyman Conservatory.

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     The 1999 Fall Chrysanthemum Show will run from Saturday, November 6, through Sunday, November 21. On Friday evening, November 5, a special opening lecture and reception is planned. Cheryl Lowe, Horticulture Director of the New England Wild Flower Society, will speak on "Plant Conservation in Botanic Gardens: A Case Study" at 6:30 pm in room 106, Seelye Hall (see page 10  for more information about our lecture series). Refreshments will be served afterward in the Lyman Conservatory, which will be specially illuminated to show off those cascading chrysanthemums.
 
Paula Panich is the publisher and editor of DIRT: A Garden Journal from the Connecticut River Valley. This article also appears in the Autumn 1999 issue of DIRT. Contact her at 413-586-8642.

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