Its Chinese name “ju” means “gathering together” because the flower looks like a petal ball. To the Chinese the chrysanthemum flower, blessed with both many petals and the fortitude to blossom in the cold days of late autumn and early winter, signifies abundance and longevity. For people about to entire retirement, the calm presence of chrysanthemums is said to welcome in a quiet life. Chrysanthemum was deemed to be one of the four honourable plants by Chinese scholars in the pastalong with plum, orchid and bamboo.
Today chrysanthemums come in a variety of shapes and petal arrangements but originally the chrysanthemum was just a small yellow flower.
After generations of cultivation, the number of varieties grew rapidly. In the Chrysanthemum Book of the Song Dynasty (960-1279), 35 varieties were noted but by the time of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), the number had risen to 136. In Li Shizhen’s famous book, “Ben Cao Gang Mu”, finished in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), more than 900 varieties of chrysanthemum were listed. Today more than 3,000 varieties are blooming in China.
Just as knowledge and a taste for tea traveled from China to Japan and Korea, chrysanthemums found their way to Japan and Korea as well.
From that time onward, chrysanthemums, known as kikus in Japan, were depicted on artworks and luxury objects such as lacquer boxes, porcelain incense cases and inro ( elaborately decorated little cases that were used to carry seals for personal documents and later used for carrying medicines ) and depicted on gilded screens as lavish sprays of blossoms or solitary blossoms, often accompanied by small birds or animals. In fact, chrysanthemums are featured on the Imperial Crest of Japan ( a 16-petal flower ) and references to the Japanese emperor are often referred to as coming from the ‘chrysanthemum throne.’
Chrysanthemums stated a craze in Japan for botany and gardening that extended from the upper echelons of the military elite to all levels of society. In the late 19th century at the royal family garden – Shinjuku Gyoen – in Tokyo, a painstaking technique for training chrysanthemum plants to grow exhibition sized blossoms was developed.
This technique is called ozukuri (“thousand blooms”) utilized single chrysanthemum plants that are “trained,” for a year or more, to produce hundreds of blossoms in a massive, dome-shaped configurations or cascades of blossoms that spill down to the floor like a drapery. The technique requires every branch and stem to be painstakingly pinched, staked, tied, and generally forced to grow according to the strict rules of the tradition.
Chrysanthemums even have a moshi and bean paste confection in their honor in Japan that is called a ‘namagashi. Yum, I love these !
In Chinese medicine, chrysanthemum is used to maintain healthy cholesterol levels, normalize blood pressure and improve blood flow. It is also used to sharpen hearing and vision, to calm the nerves and clear the brain. It has been proven to be of value in preventing sore throat and reducing fever. For all of its attributes, the Chinese consider chrysanthemum to be a longevity elixir, and a perfect companion and flavor-compliment to the delicious flavor of tea.
Chrysanthemum tea can be made by adding a small quantity whole dried chrysanthemum blossoms to green or to black tea, or it is found in herbal mixtures such as Ba Bao Cha ( the Eight Treasures ) which consists of dried fruits, dried citrus peels, dried berries, dried flower petals, rock sugar and dried chrysanthemum flowers. Plain chrysanthemum flowers can also be brewed as an herbal tea by those looking for a delicate, light-flavored, caffeine-free beverage.
For detailed information on the history of Chinese 12 Flowers of the Months tea cups, please read my post from January 1st, 2010.