Welcome to the Greenhouses!This austere polished ramp leads down to the greenhouses at Smith College. Why were we here? Only because we had guests, and I was fresh out of ideas of what to do with them, and the Chrysanthemum show was on. Now honestly spoken, I don’t love chrysanthemums. But every year Smith has two major flower shows. (After all, they have an excellent Botany department, and lots of students to put to good use, and that way the whole community benefits.)

In the spring Smith has a spring bulb show, a grand display of daffodils and tulips and hyacinths and freesias, the glorious colors and scents of spring. I love spring flowers. But it isn’t spring, it’s fall, and in the fall, it’s the chrysanthemum show, so off we went willy-nilly. You may not be wildly amazed to hear that I came to scoff, but I stayed to cheer. The flowers were, simply put, gorgeous. And being there, and putting this post together, I learned a whole lot ABOUT chrysanthemums. None of which really explains what I learned that day FROM the chrysanthemums —

But first, here’s what awaited us when we pushed open the heavy door to the first greenhouse:

Great Shaggy Heads of Chrysanthemums

Just beyond this opening display we came to this wall:

Wall of Flowers

Well, okay, it’s a whole lot of chrysanthemums. Spectacular in their way, I suppose. But then there were these:

Autumn's Gentlemen

Which are spectacular by anybody’s lights. Thanks to Mr. Google and the folks at Wikipedia, I can now tell you a lot about chrysanthemums that I didn’t know before. For instance, chrysanthemums are one of the Four Gentlemen who represent the Four Seasons in Chinese and Eastern Asian art. (Besides the mums of Autumn, there are the orchids of Spring, the bamboos of Summer, and the plum blossoms of Winter.)

I can tell you about their symbolism, which ranges wildly from deathly to life-giving.  In Europe, chrysanthemums are a symbol of death and appear at funerals and on graves. In Asia, white chrysanthemums stand for lamentation and grief. But the Emperor of Japan sits on the Chrysanthemum Throne and has a stylized chrysanthemum for his official seal, and in Australia the flowers are given to mothers on Mothers’ Day. (Don’t worry, there’s no sinister meaning behind it. Au contraire.) In the United States, chrysanthemums are considered positive and cheerful flowers everywhere except in New Orleans, for some obscure reason. They are the official flower of the city of Chicago. So what does all this contradictory information add up to? I think you pays your money, and you takes your choice. The chrysanthemums don’t complain.

One thing is unequivocal. The word chrysanthemum comes from the Greek, and means “golden.” (Catholics and others knowledgeable about saints know that the early Church Father St. John Chrysostom got his name because he was such a golden-tongued orator.) Even though chrysanthemums now come in many colors, gold is still predominant:

The Golden Chrysanthemum

Of all of the hothouse blooms, though, I actually found most beautiful the white chrysanthemums that usually are shunned as symbols of death and grieving:

Too Pure for Our World?

And as I look at them, I wonder: how could such incredible curling beauties become a symbol of death and loss and lamentation? Well, maybe they’re so pure in their beauty that they seem other-worldly, somehow too good for our everyday world. Or maybe people just can’t recognize a good thing when they see it. At any rate, this may not be a very edifying conclusion to come away with from the chrysanthemum show. But I know it will definitely be a consoling one for those times when I too feel slighted or unappreciated or misunderstood, my incredible curling beauty wasted on an indifferent world.

This entry was posted in Autumn, Death, Etcetera, Flowers, Japan, Pioneer Valley and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. cocomino says:

    What a lovely flower How nice


  2. Beautiful! Chrysanthemums and Marigolds were used at funerals prior to the days of embalming to cover the smell of death……..and I agree with you that the white ones are so very marvelous! Thanks for sharing. When I was a critical care nurse and my patients passed on the family would often leave the chrysanthemums behind and I would take them home and plant them. At one point I could remember the different patients whom they represented. Silly how you made me remember that from so many decades ago. Now I want to go out and garden! Too bad it is below freezing in Oz.


    • Touch2Touch says:

      Silly? No, I find it quite an imaginative tribute to memory, to life’s continuity and life’s renewal. You had a wonderful idea there, Emil.
      It won’t stay below freezing forever in Oz, and at some point the Emerald City will return to green. Then you’ll set your green fingers to work again.
      (I envy you and everyone who gardens; I was born with a black thumb, even though I love flowers very much.)


  3. Patti Kuche says:

    The original wallflowers! Poor little things, so bright and colourful and bursting to please and so pleased for you Judith that you came away with such a positive light to shine on these beauties. They do seem to have worked so hard through the times haven’t they!


  4. mybrightlife says:

    I think the first post I read of yours was about an orchid show. I enjoyed this post just as much. Flowers are such an integral part of our life but sometimes I think we take them for granted yet their beauty has the on-going capacity to make us stop and pause no matter how young or old.


    • Touch2Touch says:

      Flowers, with their gratuitous beauty, make me think of God or Mother Nature or whomever you choose to cherish simply lavishing gifts freely on us, his/her/its children. For nothing.
      All we’re called upon to do is admire them. It never ceases to amaze me.


  5. Lucid Gypsy says:

    I know how you feel, they aren’t a flower I would get excited about – except that in their season they do provide something wonderful that nothing else does, so yes these are lovely.


  6. barb19 says:

    The white ones are stunning. This was a fabulous chrysanthemum show to take your guests to, and your photos say it all – beautiful selection!.


  7. Beautiful post about mums! I didn’t have any opinion at all about them before, but I like them now — the white one in particular.

    Wouldn’t have known about that saint either, hadn’t there been a village in QC bearing his name. Each time we went to Maine, we went through it..


  8. I never think pictures can capture the true beauty of witnessing something first-hand. If this theory holds true, I am jealous of what your visitors were able to witness. These pictures are beautiful!!! Thanks for bringing the Smith College greenhouse to life for us.

    My mums look like they will be flowering one more time this year. I wish I could experience the vibrant colors and varieties you saw. I will be watching my planter come alive with bright yellow flowers soon if I am lucky.


    • Touch2Touch says:

      One thing my research told me was the big difference between “exhibition flowers” (gorgeous, huge, intricate, fragile) and “garden-hardy flowers,” which are undoubtedly what you have in your garden. The garden flowers smaller and not so “dressed-up” but, like you, they’re strong and lasting. Both varieties can wear the characteristic “golden” of the golden flowers. Enjoy this season’s final flowering when it comes!


  9. oh this was a lovely wander. I would never have gone to a display of mums. I mean, seriously, mums? Your pictures make me change my mind, however. And, your incredible beauty shines through, never think it is wasted or that we are indifferent! You shine.


  10. Although the chrysanthemums are not one of my absolute favorite flowers in general – I love the dark brownish-red ones. For me they “läuten den Winter ein” . I also have the kind of graveyard feeling with them, but probably because they are nearly the only flowering plants in late autumn, and are used when in pots to decorate the graves in November, well, in Germany and France for example.
    And the white ones as symbols of death like white arums and lillies – as white is the color of innocence we may became innocent again……in our second life 🙂
    Very interesting post, dear Judith. And your selection is simply wonderful!
    Tres amicalement, karin


    • Touch2Touch says:

      Karin! What an interesting idea, one I’ve never heard before — that white , the white for example of flowers like lilies and chrysanthemums, represents innocence, that death returns us to innocence.
      Death as entrance to a second life is a familiar enough idea from many standpoints. How much one believes differs from one person to another, and I suspect it is different from time to time in one person’s life. Somehow the idea of death returning us to innocence resonates differently, and powerfully, for me! I have to live with this one for a while, and see where it leads. Thank you.


  11. xties says:

    White flowers have been my favourites since childhood … and your white chrysanthemums made me gasp. Flowers at funerals simply underline what the psalmist sang: “Our days on earth are like grass; like wildflowers, we bloom and die.” (Psalm 103:15, New Living Translation).


    • Touch2Touch says:

      I love the Japanese aesthetic of aware, transitoriness. It is precisely because a phenomenon — like cherry blossoms, or wildflowers, or human lives — is evanescent and fleeting that it is so precious, to be appreciated and honored while there is still time.


  12. What a beautiful display of flowers! I never knew there were that many different types of chrysanthemums. I usually see mine in a tea cup when the mums make chrysanthemum tea! 🙂


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