Sarah Raven on why the chrysanthemum is having a comeback

Concluding our series about plants enjoying a revival, Sarah Raven explains how new varieties have helped her appreciate the star qualities of chrysanthemums. Plant them in spring for a glorious autumn display
Sarah grows a mix of chrysanths in her East Sussex garden. Here, she holds an armful of ‘Bigoudi Purple’ and ‘Bigoudi Red’, with C. ‘Spider Bronze’ and C. ‘Avignon Pink’ gathered in a bucket.Andrew Montgomery

I knew things had changed with chrysanthemums when, four years ago, I walked into the Brooklyn workshop of Saipua, the super trendy New York florist and saw buckets and buckets of chrysanthemums, all in cadaverous tones. Every flower was in its own plastic hairnet to protect the twisty, complex, many-petalled heads. They cost a fortune and were destined for a flower installation at The Met.

MAY WE SUGGEST: How to grow dahlias

As an ex-doctor who had to spend far too much time on the 15th floor of Charing Cross Hospital doing anatomy dissection, I find that the formaldehyde-flesh colour currently so fashionable is a bit of a challenge, but in flowers it is strangely alluring and I fell for these chrysanths. A politer description would be ‘oyster’, but if pale-dead-flesh grey is still too much for you, there are some ground-breaking, less challenging tones in the ever-expanding Chrysanthemum range. As we have got hooked on dahlias, plant breeders have anticipated chrysanths will be the next best thing and are producing new varieties. Often the best ones are bred for the cut-flower industry first and are under restrictive plant-breeders’ rights, but, in time, the licences lapse and they become available as garden plants.

These new varieties could not be more different from the ugly, prissy things, with the petals in static whirls around a golden disc that we associate with the Seventies chrysanth. Those multi-headed, Spray types are not objects of joy, whereas plenty of the new ones truly are, with individual blooms the size of a hand, stacked with petals, waywardly curving in and out. If I had to choose one flower I want more of in 2021, it would be chrysanths.

No one could tell me the name of the variety I saw in New York, but I have found some good approximations. You want to avoid the singles, where you can see the centre of the flower. These are the only ones that have forage for the pollinators but, sadly, they are not the beauties. It is the doubles you want, where the central flower parts (the anthers and nectaries) are bred into extra petals. Do a late sowing of something like cerinthe or Echium vulgare to make up for this for late butterflies and bees.

On aesthetics alone, you are pretty safe selecting from either the Spider or Decorative groups. The New York cadaver form was one of the latter and these all have bold, unfussy flowers (with the Spiders even more so). My current favourite is the smoky, mother-of-pearl ‘Avignon Pink’, marvellous on their own in a vase cut on the longest possible stems. They are also good picked shorter to mix with similarly coloured Nerine bowdenii ‘Ostara’.

A good range of bronzes is also available now. ‘Pandion Bronze’ is a beautiful copper and flowers for ages. I love the crazy-headed ‘Spider Bronze’ – like a firework and ideal cut short and spread out as a constellation down the centre of a harvest festival table.

You would be hard pushed not to like dark crimsons and, if there is some conker-brown mixed in, so much the better. I love ‘Bigoudi Red’ for this reason – rich and delicious, like the best dark chocolate – but ‘Tarantula Red’ is my favourite of this lot, in the deepest velvet crimson, with flowers shaped like a starburst.

MAY WE SUGGEST: 70's style conifers are back in fashion, here's which variety to choose

A colour that needs careful choosing is salmon. Until recently, I would have skipped straight over that section in any catalogue, but I have realised that some of the softer versions of salmon, with variations in petal tone, can be magical. Chrysanthemum ‘Salmon Allouise’ is a good example. It is a newish colour from the long-standing ‘Allouise’ series and I love it, with its gentle-coloured petal reverse pulling it away from anything too fishy.

All these chrysanths follow on perfectly from dahlias in their flowering time in a cutting garden. Just as the dahlias get zapped by cold weather or become water-logged, your Chrysanthemums come into bloom. If, like me, you like to have a few flowers in the house, even in late autumn and winter, you will be super grateful. Chrysanthemums look quite like the best dahlias, yet have a vase-life five times as long. That is why you will find them filling all the buckets on the garage forecourt.

And – like dahlias – they are (to an admittedly lesser degree) cut-and-come-again. If you take the leader out, picking the top clump of flowers, the buds below will continue to develop, so you can pick a bunch again two weeks later. And they do so from October, when almost everything else is mushy and brown.

MAY WE SUGGEST: Why you should be growing the delicate, scented pelargonium

To get chrysanthemums looking their best, we plant three cuttings to a large (7-litre) pot, then sink the pot in the ground. As with almost all plants grown for picking, you want stocky front-row forwards rather than spindly wingers. This gives you the best production later in the year so, after a couple of weeks, pinch them out, removing the top growth, down to three or four leaves (ie about 23cm). Like dahlias, they need careful staking. Check the height of the variety you are growing and support them with uprights and string at one-third and two-thirds their final height.

When the weather becomes bad, we bring our pots into the greenhouse. They will go on till Christmas with protection, under glass, or in a sunny porch. With our increasingly long, milder autumns, you can get away without doing this, but your harvest will be larger if they are brought under cover. It is in March that we start our chrysanths off, so consider this a call to action if you want an autumn filled with these elegant, life-enhancing stars.