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Chrysanthemums: History and Flower Forms

Spider Chrysanthemum; photo by Ivo Vermeulen
Spider Chrysanthemum; photo by Ivo Vermeulen


Chrysanthemums have a history that is as colorful as the flowers themselves. First cultivated centuries ago in China, the chrysanthemum was used primarily as a culinary herb. Its petals and young shoots found their way to the table in salads; its flowers and leaves were taken and brewed into teas. 

The Japanese subsequently adopted the flower and were so enamored with it that they gave it the status of royalty. The flower is used on the Emperor’s official seal and crest, and the highest level of decoration that can be awarded to an individual for distinguished service to the nation is the Supreme Order of the Chrysanthemum. The Japanese have a National Chrysanthemum Day, the Festival of Happiness, which is one of five ancient festival days in the country. Kiku is the Japanese word for chrysanthemum.

The chrysanthemum was introduced into European culture in the 17th century. Some European countries gave the flower a markedly different meaning, adopting it as a symbol of death, using it for funerals and graves.

What do you see when you look at a chrysanthemum flower?

The name chrysanthemum (Chrysanthemum) is derived from the Greek chryos meaning gold and anthemon meaning flower. Early depictions of chrysanthemums show them as small, yellow, daisy-like flowers.

Chrysanthemums belong to the Asteraceae or daisy family. It is one of the largest families in the botanical world. In evolutionary terms, it is considered one of the more advanced families because of its complex flower structure. Members of this family include chrysanthemums, asters (Aster), coneflowers (Echinacea) and zinnias (Zinnia).

The Asteraceae family was formerly known as the Compositae or composite family. In many ways the old nomenclature presents us with a better visualization of the family.  While members of the Asteraceae family often look like one large flower, the flower head is in fact a composite of many tiny flowers.

A good illustration is the dandelion (Taraxacum). When a dandelion goes to seed, a hundred tiny seeds are propelled through the air on makeshift parachutes. The reason dandelions are so prolific is that what appears to be one flower with a mass of golden petals is in fact a cluster of many tiny individual flowers that all seed individually.

The petals on chrysanthemums and other members of the Asteraceae family are technically called florets. Florets are small or reduced flowers that form a dense cluster on a larger inflorescence (flower head). There are two types of florets: disk florets and ray florets.

Chrysanthemum 'Kokka Bunmi'; photo by Marlon Co

Chrysanthemum 'Kokka Bunmi'; photo by Marlon Co

Disk florets are found in the center of the flower head and are botanically perfect, meaning that these tiny flowers contain both male and female parts. This is the reproductive part of the plant that forms seeds. If you think of a sunflower (Helianthus), this would be the center of the head.

Ray florets are on the perimeter of the plant and are “imperfect”, that is they only contain female organs. These are the showy parts of the plant.

In evolutionary terms the outer ray florets presumably sacrificed fertility in exchange for flamboyant petals in order to attract pollinators to the dense, yet insignificant, cluster of disk flowers. 

Chrysanthemums come in all sorts of colors, shapes and sizes. They predominately come in a gorgeous array of autumnal shades ranging from purple, pink, red, yellow, bronze and white. Some varieties have different color ray and disk flowers, and others have bi-colored ray flowers that are exquisite.

From centuries of hybridization work, breeders have produced new varieties that go far beyond the classic daisy-shaped flower. Breeders select out desired traits and, by manipulating the natural variations that exist in chrysanthemums, create different colors and forms.


The National Chrysanthemum Society has grouped chrysanthemums into 13 different classifications.

Class 1  – Irregular Incurve

Class 2  – Reflex

Class 3  – Regular Incurve

Class 4  – Decorative

Class 5  – Intermediate Incurve

Class 6  – Pompon  

Class 7  – Single and Semi-Doubles 

Class 8  – Anemone

Class 9  – Spoon

Class 10 – Quill

Class 11 – Spider

Class 12 – Brush and Thistle

Class 13 – Unusual

For more information on the 13 different classifications, refer to the tab at the top of the page titled Chrysanthemum Classifications.

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