Have you ever heard of the Chinese Four Noble Ones: the chrysanthemum, the plum, bamboo and the orchid, only allowed to be grown in the noble ones’ garden?
I couldn’t believe my ears when my English husband told me he loved the “mums”, you know the chrysanthemums with their decorative pompon, fall flowers bursting into bloom right now. To him just beautiful and a must have in every garden. To me, a Belgian, they symbolize All Saints’ Day or La Toussaint as the French call it. The first of November, a day to remember the saints and ever so close to All Souls’ Day (November the 2nd) the day of the death. The French, the Belgians too, carry these flowers to the graveyards to remember and honour their death, no way they would give you a bunch of them as a present. That’s when I realized how different customs are. What is to us, a flower to honour the death, is to others a magnificent garden flower or gift for a loved one!
Why did this particular flower became a graveyard decoration, I wondered? I was always told as they are flowers that don’t drop their heads when dying, they symbolized life. Why is it not that symbol to others and what does it represent to them? Weird enough, whether derived from the Greek “chrysos” (gold) and “anthemon” (flower) or the Chinese “Chu hua” (October flower), the scientific plant name has become their commonly used name.
Actually the oldest variety of this flower is indeed the Chinese one, a daisy-like plant growing and cultivated in China. It took 2 500 years before it made its way to Europe! In China, the ninth day of the ninth lunar month, marks the beginning of the chrysanthemums’ season, people then celebrate long lives, by honoring elderly family and friends. This city flower of Beijing is in the Chinese culture even the emblem of the Old Chinese army. Their royal seal shows the chrysanthemum as a flower, representing the sun, surrounded by 16 beams, to be found on the Japanese passport and their 50 Yen coin too. A complete city is even named after this flower: Xiaolan Town of Zhongshan City, meaning the city of chrysanthemums.
Traditionally boiled in China (their place of origin) to make a relaxing tea, helping head congestion, headaches, dizziness, blurred vision and strengthening your lungs, even used in folk medicine for influenza patients and to reduce varicose veins. Serve a meal and offer the tea to aid digestion. Have you got dry or itchy eyes, use fresh flowers on them. Research will tell you that they are beneficial for your high blood pressure too. After having worked hours on your computer you should apparently best drink chrysanthemum flower tea, to reduce the side effects of the low levels of radiation coming from your screen. To the cooks amongst you, fried with garlic and chili, the dark green leaves are said to be well textured and aromatic.
It were the Buddhist monks that brought them to Japan in AD 400, impressing the Japanese Emperors so much, that they loved to sit on thrones of chrysanthemums. And they are “it” in Japanese culture, featuring on more than 150 of their seals (even the Imperial Seal of Japan) and part of the highest Japanese order awarded by their emperors: The Supreme Order of the Chrysanthemum. They celebrate them in their yearly festival: “Festival of Happiness”. They are their symbol of the sun, representing perfection, just by the way they unfold their petals. The Japanese do use the white ones for funerals, but the red ones are to be given to the person they love or have high affection for.
It were the Victorians who taught us that different flowers, signal hidden messages but I would never have thought these mums are a symbol of long life, fidelity, optimism and joy and mean compassion, cheerfulness, rest, loveliness. Nor that they are used as the November birth flower and even the 13th wedding anniversary flower. Red ones symbolize love and truth, the yellow ones are only for the slightly loved, according to florists. Feng shui tells us they’re the bringers of happiness and laughter to our homes. Due to the longevity of their blooms, chrysanthemum flowers became the florists’ favourite for arrangements.
Placing a single petal of this celebrated flower ( it even is the official flower of the city of Chicago, by the way), at the bottom of my wine glass and toasting to you my beloved reader, as it is said this will encourage a long and healthy life.