Coming up Chrysanthemums
Published: April 2009
By Luke Barr
The elaborate Japanese art of cultivating chrysanthemums (kiku) may well be the botanical equivalent of haute couture—wildly extravagant, highly theatrical, and unavoidably time-consuming. Starting this month, the most extensive showing outside Japan of chrysanthemums grown in the imperial style can be seen in "Kiku: The Art of the Japanese Chrysanthemum," at the New York Botanical Garden (Bronx River Pkwy. and Fordham Rd.; 718/817-8700; nybg.org; October 20–November 18). The exhibit includes a number of showstopping ozukuri ("thousand blooms"), for which a single chrysanthemum is "trained," for a year or more, to produce hundreds of blossoms in a massive, five-foot-tall, dome-shaped array, and displayed in a bamboo-and-cedar pavilion. 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. The method originated in the late 19th century at the Shinjuku Gyoen in Tokyo, a royal family garden since open to the public; over the past five years, a New York Botanical Garden horticulturalist, Yukie Kurashina, was given permission to apprentice there with Yasuhira Iwashita, the so-called kiku master.
There is a formality to these plants, a design precision that calls to mind architecture as much as gardening. But among the rigorously managed bright pinks and hot yellows is also sheer abundance and fertility—not nature, tamed, and yet uncontainable.