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:
Just beyond this opening display we came to this wall:
Well, okay, it’s a whole lot of chrysanthemums. Spectacular in their way, I suppose. But then there were these:
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:
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:
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.