Legends of the chrysanthemum

With the arrival of cooler weather, many gardeners turn to fall chrysanthemums to provide color for the spots left vacant by tired summer annuals. What most don’t realize is that they are planting a species whose relatives go back centuries, even millennia, and whose origins are buried in legends.

Chrysanthemums are said to have first come from China although they are more often associated with Japan. According to an ancient Chinese legend, about 3,000 years ago, an emperor was told that the Dragon-fly Island in the Sunrise Sea (Japan) had a magic herb that would restore his youth. But since only youth could collect it, he sent a dozen young men and a dozen girls to the island.

They arrived at the islands after surviving perilous storms and attacks by sea serpents, and finding neither magic herb nor inhabitants on the island, they decided to stay. The prized possession they brought for trading, and now nurtured as a tie with their homeland, was the golden chrysanthemum.

Of course, Japanese mythology provides a different version of how the chrysanthemum came to be found in Japan. Legend has it that in the beginning, there were so many gods in heaven that some, including the god Izanagi and the goddess Izanami, were sent to the earth on a cloud-bridge.

Once on earth, the goddess created the gods of the winds, mountains, sea, and others, finally dying upon creating the god of fire. Izanagi missed Izanami and so followed her to the place of Black Night where she had gone, only to see vile sights and be pursued by the Old Hag of Black Night.

Narrowly escaping back to the earth, the god Izanagi went straight to the river for a purification bath. As he shed his clothes and they touched the ground, they turned into twelve gods. His jewels became flowers — one bracelet an iris, another a lotus, and his necklace a golden chrysanthemum.

Japan’s imperial emblem for ten centuries featured a golden chrysanthemum with sixteen petals. In the War of Dynasties, which began in 1357 and lasted for 55 years, each warrior of the South wore a yellow chrysanthemum as a golden badge of courage.

There is only one place in Japan, according to legend, where the chrysanthemum is not grown. Long ago in the city of Himeji, a nobleman lived in a large castle with many treasures. Trusting no one, he allowed only his serving maid O-kiku, whose name means chrysanthemum, to handle and dust his possessions. One day she discovered one of his ten precious plates was missing. Not being able to find it, and fearing she would be blamed, she drowned herself in the well.

Every night her ghost would come up to count the plates. Her repeated screeching upon finding one missing drove the nobleman out of the castle, which then fell into ruin. The people of Himeji, delighted by his departure, thereafter refused to grow the chrysanthemum in honor of O-kiku.

The word “chrysanthemum” comes from the Greek words meaning “golden flower,” but a German legend refers to another of the many colors of chrysanthemums. One cold, snowy Christmas Eve in Germany’s Black Forest, a peasant family was sitting down to a meager supper when they heard a wailing. At first they thought it was the wind. But upon hearing the sound repeatedly, they opened the door and found a beggar. They ushered in the poor man who was blue with cold, wrapped him in blankets, and shared their food.

Instantly, the blankets were shed, revealing a man in shining white clothing with a halo around his head. Proclaiming himself the Christ Child he fled. The next morning, outside the door where he had stood, were two white chrysanthemums. Today, many Germans bring white chrysanthemums into their homes on Christmas Eve, believing that by doing so they are sheltering the Christ Child.

So when you see chrysanthemums in gardens this fall, think of these rich legends from other cultures. And mark your calendar now to remind yourself to buy some white chrysanthemum cut flowers or a potted plant this Christmas season.

Dr. Leonard Perry is Extension Professor, Department of Plant and Soil Science at the University of Vermont. Visit his website at http://www.uvm.edu/~pass/perry/index.html