The Chrysanthemum

Great Symbols Series @ Theosophy Trust


Lo! in the corner yonder
There is a gleam of white and gold.
The gold of summer's sunshine,
The white of winter's cold.
And laden with spicy odours,
The autumn breezes come.
From nooks and corners, brightened
By the brave chrysanthemum.


 On a beautiful moonlit night a young girl wandered in a garden. She gathered a blossom and began to pull off its petals one by one to see whether or not her lover cared. Suddenly, a little elf appeared before her, assuring her that she was very much adored. He said, "Your beloved will become your husband and he will live as many years as the flower, which you choose, has petals." When the elf had disappeared, the maiden began to search for a flower with the greatest number of petals. At length she picked a Persian carnation, and with a golden hairpin she separated each petal into two or three parts. Soon her deft fingers had increased the number of folioles of the corolla to three times the original number, and she wept with joy to think of the happiness she had brought her future husband. Thus it was that the kiku, or chrysanthemum, came into being many centuries ago in a garden where the moon shone over the flowers and glistened on the streams and little bamboo bridges.

 Revered in Japan, where it is associated with the autumn, the chrysanthemum was originally recognized and cherished in China. Known as chu, the chrysanthemum was believed to have great medicinal powers capable of promoting long life. The dew gathered from its petals was treated as an elixir which could preserve and restore vitality. In Nanyang, located in central China, there was a pool along whose banks plants grew thickly. People living nearby drank the water and were said to have attained the venerable age of one hundred years. The chrysanthemum thus came to represent that which endures and is cool and retiring. It was symbolic of ease, calm splendour and lasting good cheer.

 The original plant grew wild in central China and possessed a small yellow bloom. Called Chrysanthemum hortorum by modern botanists, it long ago divided into two species known as the indicum and the morifolium. The small yellow-flowering indicum and the robust white, red or purple morifolium crossed and recrossed repeatedly, their proliferation inviting the hand of man to compete in the work. Perhaps no other flower can compare with the chrysanthemum in terms of variations in form, colour and growth. Its hybrid nature was capable of reflecting the complexities of human design. The name chrys (gold) anthemon (flower) hearkens to its original simplicity and reminds one of the gold of the afternoon sun, but the array of colours that emerged matched the rich hues of its setting. It is mentioned in the ancient Book of Rites and Book of Odes, which were revised by Confucius in the fifth century B.C. and which were based upon a much older origin. These records indicate the very ancient association of the plant with the Chinese people, the earliest mentioning only the yellow-coloured bloom. Later, during the T'ang dynasty, the white chrysanthemum begins to be mentioned, to be followed by the purple. In the Sung dynasty it was often praised in poetry, and different varieties were given wonderful names like Golden Bells, Jade Basin, Silver Bowl, Purple Crab's Claw and Pink Silk Threads.

 These imaginative names were inspired by the many and novel forms that have been cultivated in China and are rarely seen in the West. Their variety is due, in part, to the fact that species in the family form a complex polyploid series in which the chromosome numbers vary from eighteen to ninety. When horticulturalists came into the picture, the situation became even more variable. The cultivated clones of the garden chrysanthemums are of especially complicated hybridity for they are aneuploids of different numbers with more or less chromosomes than the basic polyploids. The whole spectrum of genetic possibilities widened as man carefully cultivated and selected, working, as it were, with malleable material to form a splendid array of fanciful yet magnificent living art. Seeds were crossed, differing types were grafted onto one another, and withered flowers were planted in shallow soil to encourage variation. In an early twelfth century monograph, Liu Meng recognized thirty-five different forms of the chrysanthemum, whilst Shih Cheng-Chih mentioned twenty-seven varieties in the gardens of Soochow alone. Towards the end of that century the poet Fan Ch'eng-to wrote that he had seen a painting in a family house which depicted seventy different colours and forms of the flower. In his encyclopaedic work on flowers written in 1708, Kuang C'hun-fang-p'u described nearly three hundred kinds of chrysanthemums. The number steadily increased until the present day, when there are over three thousand varieties gracing the gardens and flower arrangements of the world.

 The Dutch brought the chrysanthemum to Europe in the late seventeenth century, but it was a century or so before it really caught the fancy of growers and the East India Company began to import the plant into England. In France it became associated with All Souls Day and was considered a dour cemetery flower, with its compact formal head nodding in snowy penitence over a stone-cold slab. But elsewhere more joyful varieties blossomed in single daisy-like heads, anemone discs, pompons, incurved and reflexed blooms. Terms like 'spoon', 'quill', 'thread' and 'spider' were less poetic but reminiscent of Chinese names and began to be used with increasing familiarity. One of the main reasons for the chrysanthemum's growing popularity in the West lay in the fact that its period of bloom began only when that of other flowers had finished. Europeans were discovering what the Chinese and Japanese had known for centuries: that the approach of winter could be heralded with a wonderful show of colour instead of the bareness of empty beds and leafless shrubs. The chrysanthemum commences where other flowers leave off and it brings the gold of summer into the white of winter's cold.

 A beautiful association with this characteristic is made from the example of the most popular poet of the Tsin dynasty (A.D. 372-427), T'ao Yuan-ming. Tiring of the hypocrisy of officialdom, this famous hermit-poet retired to the country in order to tend his beloved chrysanthemums. He mentioned them frequently in his poetry, which was considered the quintessence of writing, and thus the chrysanthemum became a symbol of a recluse. Hiding from the bustle and show of the springtime flowers, it enjoys its own isolation in the fall.

In the second month the peach tree blooms,
But not till the ninth the chrysanthemums;
So each must wait till his own time comes.

The time of the chrysanthemum is especially appreciated because it is so cool, aloof from the burgeoning cycles of spring and summer. It waits, like the hermit, for its own expression of that patient and enduring beauty that lies within. Perhaps this is why the Chinese and Japanese have for centuries derived immense meaning from the calm and serene viewing of chrysanthemum blooms. This may involve meditating upon one solitary flower, or it may include the viewing of a whole garden of them, but every year on the ninth day of the ninth month people set aside time to appreciate the unique expression of cultivated artistry offered by their blossoms. The Japanese call this celebration Kiku-no-Sekku, and at Dango Zaka life-size figures made of chrysanthemums are arranged in wonderful historical or legendary tableaux. By sprinkling every evening, the flowers are kept fresh for the month of the festival and thus lend an enduring presence to the themes depicted.

 In individual Japanese homes the tokonoma (flower arrangement niche) is graced with the chrysanthemum at this time of the year. The long stems curve before an appropriate autumnal scroll (kakemono) and the blooms cast a radiance of cool freshness upon the quiet scene. Winter draws nigh but a crisp serenity ushers it in, and the householder derives a sense of rejuvenation each time he gazes at the display. Enormous care throughout the long months now yields this profoundly satisfactory result, and autumn is rendered a time of slow and graceful fruition suggestive of the gradual development characteristic of lasting things. The visual realization of this was paralleled in ancient times by the drinking of chrysanthemum wine, believed to promote long life. During the time of the Han dynasty in China the foliage and twigs were annually gathered during the time of bloom and made into wine, which was kept until the following autumn when it was consumed.

 It is said that in very ancient times the Chinese emperor Muh-Wang became a Buddhist and showered the benefits of these teachings upon all those around him. A favourite in his court was a young man named Jido, who was especially taught the phrases meant to ensure long life. When Jido fell out of favour, he was banished to a mountain in Japan which overhung a clear river and was covered with chrysanthemum blooms. Accepting his exile cheerfully, Jido painted the blessing for longevity upon individual chrysanthemum petals from morn to nightfall each day. As he dropped these into the river, its waters became an elixir of life, bringing vitality and healing to all who drank from it. Perhaps this is the way in which the idea was brought to Japan, where echoes of the Chinese tale as well as the wine-drinking ritual flowered and became an important part of ceremonial life. The Japanese Immortal, or Sennin, believed to be the genius of the chrysanthemum, is called Kiku-jido, the Grace Boy of the Chrysanthemum, who has passed beyond all human limitations and has a perfect communion with nature.

 To this day in Japan there are two imperial garden parties given each year: that celebrating the cherry blossom and the formal rite of the chrysanthemum. Poems are composed by members of the court to be read whilst the flowers are viewed. A liquor is passed in which the flowers have been pressed and the emperor's health is drunk: "Let the Emperor live forever! May he see the chrysanthemum cup go round autumn after autumn for a thousand years!" Growing as it does in various stages throughout the entire year, the chrysanthemum is 'the flower of the four seasons', and truly symbolizes the ability to endure throughout a cycle. Its petals are cooling when taken as a tea in summer. They were also used for stuffing pillows in the belief that a cool restfulness could be obtained by one who laid his head upon their fragrant softness. This coolness flows through the individual's mind and body. It smooths and encourages contemplative deliberation, retirement and peace - all the qualities that contribute to patient and graceful endurance.

 The petals cool even whilst the bloom cheers the heart of the observer who discovers it bravely and quietly opening to the sharpening weather of approaching winter. Their bright beauty and unblushing variation of form speak of patience and the cheerful willingness to await the time when the unique development in one's inner nature can unfold and show itself to the world. Even in the face of winter's adversity, the cheer of the chrysanthemum is a shield. When all the other 'children of Flora' have withdrawn their smiles, it becomes the emblem of this enviable disposition. Alexander Pope captured this idea beautifully when he wrote:

What then remains, but well our power to use,
And keep good humour still whatever we lose?
And trust me, dear! good humour can prevail,
When airs, and flights, and screams, and scolding fail.
Beauties in vain their pretty eyes may roll;
Charms strike the sight, but merit wins the soul.

 Japan is called the Land of the Chrysanthemum. The sixteen petals of a golden flower extend from a central point like rays of the sun. It is the Imperial Standard which is embroidered on flags and banners and appears on all government documents. Soldiers wear it as a frontal on their caps, reminding them of their willingness to act as instruments of the Divine Imperial Will. In this way only can they bear the kiku-no-go-mon or Imperial Family Crest worn only by royalty and those acting directly on their behalf. The Grand Cordon of the Order of the Chrysanthemum is the highest honour the Japanese court can bestow. It is the first of six orders of knighthood and is symbolic of what is closest to immortality. The reverence accorded to this and the many artistic expressions involving the chrysanthemum have encouraged an extensive and highly selective cultivation of the bloom throughout Japan. It is said that only in Himeji is the blossom not grown. There, long ago, rose a castle with thirty turrets wherein a maid-servant named O-Kiku (Chrysanthemum Blossom) cared for golden dishes of great value. When one of them disappeared, she committed suicide out of shame, and every night her ghost was seen crying whilst counting the plates. Her spirit entered the body of a curious insect found only in Himeji, where, to this day, it is considered unlucky to wear or even carry a chrysanthemum. In the autumn the place is like a barren island, surrounded by a sea of a rich variety of floral colours and forms which have been patiently cultivated by gardeners, artists and poets everywhere else.

 One of the ideals in the Japanese art of flower arranging is to achieve arrangements that look like the creations of Nature itself. Like the cultivated chrysanthemum, they are the product of art, but their changing forms are like statements of the spirit of Nature as perceived by a human mind and heart. One may question whether they are art or nature and what might be the difference between these. The term 'art' evokes many complex ideas, and 'great art' would seem to transcend mere artificiality. But the distinction between art and nature always seems to rest upon the contrast of that which is natural and that which is artificial. The chrysanthemum is the embodiment of a finely-wrought process of cultivation, and as such, answers to the original meanings associated with the Latin root ors and the Greek tekhnikos, which are the direct and indirect etymological parents of 'art'. The skill that is emphasized in these terms could apply equally to the carving of a chrysanthemum vase and the painstaking selection involved in hybridization. The dimension which plays so large a part in fusing these skills is the aesthetic: the perception and appreciation of the beautiful in accordance with the principles of what is commonly called 'good taste'. That this sense of the aesthetic is highly developed in Japan is borne out in every aspect of the culture, but most particularly in the formal act of viewing Nature's more beautiful manifestations. Today, as in mediaeval times, people are admitted to the beautiful grounds of the old palace at Akasaka merely to gaze upon the fine chrysanthemums in bloom. The form and colour of the flowers, whilst the result of botanical experimentation, are evocative of a deeper truth. Their every detail expresses the merging and crossing of human imagination and the intelligence in Nature.

 The inner truth of the chrysanthemum can be characterized as a meeting of the image-making faculty in man with the extraordinarily sensitive receptivity and mutability of its genetic make-up. Thus, the outward form of the chrysanthemum becomes a bridge leading to a glimpse of the human genius which has contributed to its evolution. Each peculiar, surprising or graceful form reveals the caste mark, so to speak, of those involved in its development. Sensitive viewers see mirrored in the blooms many sides to human nature relative to themselves as well as others, and yet they do not separate human from greater Nature. They see the same spirit in both and look for analogous patterns in growth and form. The chrysanthemum is a late bloomer associated with longevity, which is a quality much desired by many who might benefit by observing the conditions under which the flower matures.

 Nature, in its wisdom, provides a steady increase in temperature during the spring and summer, followed by a decrease in the fall and early winter. The chrysanthemum has adapted itself to this rise and fall in temperature in that it finds the warm temperatures during early bud formation desirable, but it requires the subsequent cooler temperatures of autumn to produce larger blooms of greater colour intensity. This long-curve pattern is reflected in chemical cycles whereby plant sugars for the blooms are manufactured by the leaves on bright days but are stored in reserve to be used later by the blooms. Another interesting aspect of this pattern is what is called photoperiodism, the ratio of exposure to light and darkness. The chrysanthemum is a long-night plant' requiring a period of darkness twelve or more hours in duration within every twenty-four-hour period. With longer days the chrysanthemum will grow indefinitely without blooming, but with short days the growth of the branches is curtailed and they soon become covered with flowers. Thus, the best regions for their growth is equatorial, where night and day are about the same length throughout the year. If maturation is to take place, the period of darkness must be long and complete, for if it is interrupted, even for a moment, it is enough to stop the flowering.

 This casts a very different complexion upon the relative importance of light and darkness in relation to the chrysanthemum's growth and maturation. Instead of darkness being merely a cessation of the activities associated with light, it becomes a critically positive factor in itself. It is analogous to the Japanese attitude towards sleep, wherein the act is enjoyed thoroughly and seen as a valuable experience. Rather than treating sleep as something which must be had in order to rest from the activities of one day and gather energy necessary for the next, the Japanese value sleep for its own sake. In the darkness of night whilst the world sleeps, tremendous sifting and learning take place, and a hidden inner growth recommences which will ultimately flower forth. The long-night characteristic of the chrysanthemum symbolizes the withdrawal into the seeming void of non-manifestation and the focus upon that which is the occult seed of true growth, from within without. This is the vital key that will release the full potential of the plant through its flower. But there must be enough exposure to the seeming full of light in order that the food may be garnered that will nourish the flower when it manifests in the world. In man this food is gathered from the sifted experiences of psycho-physical life and will provide the fuel necessary to sustain the bloom of the inner being when it opens out to the world.

 It is in this exquisite balance between darkness and light that glimpses of immortality are afforded. In the balance lies the calm growth that does not prematurely bud or give way to the heat of popular passions. This balance is expressed as stages along 'the flower's way', where the wonderful resilience and hybridity of the chrysanthemum are contained within an inner equilibrating force which constantly adjusts to follow the longer curve. Thus, the energies of the plant are patiently monitored within it in much the same way that myriad gardeners patiently cultivated its evolving form over thousands of years. Both the chrysanthemum and those who have tended it have expressed a faithful adherence to the longer curve which itself is an intimation of immortality. And the viewers who gaze upon the revealed blossoms catch in their mind's eye this patient truth and feel within themselves the passions abate and the mind grow cool.

He who talks, does not know;
He who knows, does not talk.


 In the teaching communicated by 'the secret way of flowers', the masters must often limit themselves to making an exemplary model under the pupil's eyes. The pupil must learn from this what lies behind and, from what he sees, push onward into the realm of the invisible. The outer form is but a bridge leading to the inner form, and crossing it will lead to a union with 'the flower heart'. One is reminded of the chrysanthemum with the tight recurved petals, often compared to the emperor who binds himself through his heart to the hearts of the people. In the union with 'the flower heart', one is bound back to the hidden focal point of consciousness wherein one's own heart is brought in alignment with and fused with the Universal Heart of All. At this point, life, spirit and art are not distinguishable nor are they separate from Nature. The Eternal is in all of them. It throbs in their living beauty and it is expressed fully in perfect equilibrium in the chrysanthemum flower. Cool and unhurried, yet cheerful and bold, the chrysanthemum endures. It points out the noble Middle Way which those who wish to succeed for the sake of others will seek out. It points the way through the noisy heat and stark winter cold to a clear fount of immortal waters flowing from 'the flower heart' of all life.

The dew drop on the petal
Falls into the chrysanthemum's heart.
The world slips into Eternity.
The flower blazes at its edge.