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The North American staples used to liven up fading fall gardens with pops of color, have a different role across the pond, as Garden Variety’s European correspondent Mike Alexander explains.
The chrysanthemum is a perennial that was first cultivated by the Chinese more than 2,500 years ago. Its name is thought to derive from the Chinese “chu hua” meaning October flower and such was its lofty status in that country that lower classes were forbidden from growing them in their gardens.
The Japanese see them as being symbolic of the sun and consider the unfolding of their petals to be representative of perfection. There are countless varieties and cultivars available ranging from lime greens through to deep angry purples. With such a rich palette of colors available and a long vase life they are often referred to as being the florists’ friend.
The chrysanthemum holds a very different place in the eyes of French society. Here the flower is symbolic of death and is used only on graves and at funerals. The first of November is la Toussaint or All Saints day and it is followed the next day by Le Jour des Morts or All Souls Day. This period forms part of an important public holiday in France usually followed by two weeks of school holidays. It is now that people return from all over the country to their ancestral homes. Family ties are reestablished, momentous meals are shared and most importantly the dead are remembered.
Grave yards that for the past twelve months have lain forgotten and untended suddenly come to life. Tombs are cleaned and tidied, prayers are said and candles are lit. For a few brief days the chrysanth suddenly comes into its own. Areas where only days before little could be seen that was not grey suddenly burst into color as bouquet after bouquet of chrysanthemums are laid on and around the graves by families remembering their long dead loved ones.
One of the most visited cemeteries in the world, Père-Lachaise in Paris, where notables such as Frederic Chopin, Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison lie buried, become sought after tourist attractions. Over this period the area draws more camera toting visitors than Napoleon would ever have imagined when he first created the site in 1804.
There are many nursery men in this country who base their whole lively hoods on the production of just chrysanthemums. They spend all year carefully cultivating these flower in a dizzying array of colors that will all be sold in just one or two short weeks. These are then laid on graves where most of them will slowly die of neglect within a short space of time.
It is usual when visiting friends hereto come bearing a gift. This normally takes the form of delicately hand made chocolate or a bunch of flowers. I know of more than one foreigner living here who, unaware of the chrysanthemums significance, has arrived at a French hosts’ home bearing a beautiful bunch of these flowers. Now the days when you can be dragged off to the village square and have you head swiftly lopped off with a guillotine are long gone. Those guilty must live with the knowledge however, that for years to come whenever his former hosts hold a family reunion, that particular family will sit around the laden dining table and say words to this effect .“Who was that foreign idiot who came to dinner that time with a bunch of chrysanthemums as a gift