NEW YORK—Spring brings tulips and daffodils, but fall is beautiful with its perennial stars, like asters and anemones that hold through winter.
Chief among the flowers of fall is the chrysanthemum, and the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) has over 700 of them on display at its annual exhibition, Kiku: The Art of the Japanese Garden, at the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory through Oct. 30, 2016.
Big, fluffy, light-purple mums; a dense waterfall of maroon-red stars created from one single plant; a spiral of pink and messy petals that spins all the way around as it unfurls, before closing again—the chrysanthemums on display are not the small, yellow daisy-like spots on bushes that come to mind for most people with no special interest in the plant.
The carefully crafted displays are 11 months in the making, grown from 13 years of the team’s knowledge, drawing on traditions of a centuries-old dying art.
Bringing Kiku to New York
From childhood, Yukie Kurashina has liked growing plants. But it wasn’t until she found out about the NYBG’s educational programs that she realized it could be her career.
So she enrolled in the two-year School of Professional Horticulture program, and “Here I am,” Kurashina said. As it turned out, she was the only one on the team who could speak Japanese when an opportunity came up to bring the art of “kiku”—Japanese for chrysanthemum—from Tokyo to the Bronx.
The NYBG had been searching for a fall exhibition idea and reached out to experts at the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden in Tokyo, who agreed to train NYBG’s horticulturalists. The condition: the training would be only in Japanese. So Kurashina went.
The first time Kurashina saw the Shinjuku Gyoen displays, she thought they were perfection. “It was art, it was not just growing plants,” she said.
The flowers were displayed to maximize appreciation—every bloom deliberate, every line perfect—and she could tell that the displays were crafted to bring out the nature of the specific variety of chrysanthemum.”It was a very high level of beauty.”
The chrysanthemum was introduced to the Western world in the 1700s, but on the other side of the world, it has long represented longevity, dignity, and nobility.
The flower was a popular motif in ancient Chinese art and poems and was considered one of the four seasonal flowers. The first reference to the flower is said to be as far back as the 15th century B.C. in China, according to horticulturalists.
By around the 8th century, chrysanthemums had appeared in Japan, and the imperial family adopted a 16-petal chrysanthemum as the official seal and crest of the emperor. Today, it is a national emblem of Japan, seen on everything from coins to passports.
Preserving Knowledge and Tradition
At the far back of the conservatory is a single chrysanthemum plant that has been trained to grow into a dome of nearly 200 flowers. This “ozukuri” (thousand blooms) technique is highly complex—one single cutting is trained to produce up to a thousand flowers that bloom at the same time, set in a frame to display the flowers equidistant from one another in a large half-sphere.
If even a single stem snaps during the process, the result is obvious, and there is no fixing it afterward (though NYBG grows a couple of extra flowers as “understudies,” tucked under the frame, in case something happens during the exhibition).
What you do, Kurashina said, is let the stems grow, and then when you count 11 leaves, pinch. Then you repeat and repeat, for 11 months. All the while, it’s not entirely clear what you’ll end up with, she said.
When she first began learning kiku techniques, she was taking notes and pictures, asking questions, practicing and growing, and she still did not get the entire picture. She kept counting 11 leaves before pinching, but she didn’t know why. It wasn’t until she saw the flowers bloom and the final result that she had an “oh!” moment and understood the theory behind the methods and techniques, she said.
Counting 11 leaves gives you a good estimate for the right length of the stems. Once you understand that principle, you might want to wait until 13 leaves develop, for a longer stem, if the design calls for it.
Kiku technique is not something that you can learn in one year. In fact, it may be a lifetime endeavor, Kurashina mused.
After four years of learning and training, NYBG first opened the Kiku exhibition in 2007.
Marc Hachadourian, the director of the Nolen Greenhouses for Living Collections, who supervises the exhibitions, says NYBG has, in a way, taken on the responsibility for continuing this art form.
“This is a tradition of horticulture that’s fallen out of favor, but we’re keeping this tradition alive,” Hachadourian said. “We’re keeping this tradition of growing these Japanese chrysanthemums alive—with the traditional Japanese techniques—but with a little bit of a modern twist on that, to adapt to our climate and as well as our growing it here.”
The flowers themselves are descendants of a stock bred in Japan (with a couple from England), trained using traditional Japanese techniques and largely displayed in very traditional styles.
The ozukuri method is one such traditional technique. The “kengai” (cascade) is another, whereby a single cutting is trained into a very dense teardrop shape and then displayed in a way that looks like a waterfall of flowers. With the “ogiku” technique (double and triple stem), the plants are grown in low light and allowed to stretch out. The end result is a large single flower atop each stem up to 6 feet tall.
There are ogiku mums a few feet from the ozukuri display: Large pink-lavender, yellow, and white chrysanthemums are placed in diagonal lines. These chrysanthemums come in many colors, Hachadourian said, but these three were chosen specifically because they are representative of the colors in the bridle of the Japanese emperor’s horse.
“They have these colors selected for a particular cultural representation in Japan and we still hold true to that,” he said. They make a special effort to show traditional styles.
“The whole reason behind this is this is a dying art in Japan,” he said.”People don’t grow up saying they want to be chrysanthemum growers anymore.” It’s a traditional craft that would have been handed down generation to generation, from mentor to apprentice, he said, and what is happening today is akin to losing a secret family recipe.
“We realize that we are now the people responsible for preserving this,” Hachadourian said. “This is not just about horticulture display; this is about a preservation of a centuries-old technique.”
As a result, NYBG and Shinjuku Gyoen have partnered, sending staff back and forth to train, and bringing Shinjuku Gyoen’s museum-quality displays to New York to be studied and reproduced, to “not only preserve, but to display these techniques outside of Japan.”
Thirteen years later, there is still much to learn, but the staff has done much to innovate based on what they’ve learned every year as well. Every exhibition means lots of trial and error, growing dozens of varieties to select the best three or six flowers for the subtlest of qualities, and testing new forms—like the two big butterfly-shaped displays and the bonsai-style chrysanthemum in this year’s exhibition.
This article was originally published on The Epoch Times.