The kiku were fragrant, lovely to look at, cool to the touch.
I had been in a mood. My foot was slower to heal than I’d like. I had a cold. I didn’t feel like working.
So I got myself to The New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx. It was offering its annual chrysanthemum show.
As soon as the door swung shut behind me – the exhibit is indoors, in the haute-Victorian 1902 glass expanse of the Enid Haupt Conservatory – a feeling of bonhomie settled over me.
A feeling of chrysanthemum-induced ecstasy, a tranquil happiness enhanced by the Japanese flute music piped in to the gallery.
You could call on your phone for information on these amazing flowers, which had been trained for a year to be massed in geometric shapes by horticulturalists. They start with one stem, and pinch it off again and again until they wind up with a hundred flowers in rows, held in place by metal frames.
That’s the back of one display. “You tell the plant how many flowers it’s going to have,” said the disembodied voice on the phone when I called for info. Called ozukuri, the practice somehow appealed to me. The human hand so obviously taming nature.
year by year passes
thinking of being thought of by
So mused the nineteenth century poet Masaoka Shiki in one of the poems displayed along the garden’s walkways.
I couldn’t help but be contemplative. Chrysanthemum-contemplative. Consider the Ogiku, diagonal rows of pink, yellow and white, like, they used to say, the bridle of the Japanese emperor’s horse.
China introduced Japan to the flower in the fourth century, and the emperor soon made it his personal crest. In 1878 he opened an exclusive park to show off the plants grown in his garden. Since the 1920s that viewing opportunity has taken place in the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden in Tokyo.
Chrysanthemums are members of the aster family. There are 13 species, some fat and regular, others ragged, others spider-like, others spoon shaped, the anenome with a disk for an eye. Here they all were.
Everyone was snapping pictures, as they always are, everyplace you go nowadays.
I like the big’uns.
I have to control myself not to publish all the pictures of them that I took.
Some were big as a grapefruit.
Some almost the size of a newborn’s head.
Like circus animals, they could be trained to do anything, even climb up a tree, an enormous flowery bonsai.
I love their peppery, spicy scent and the cool, slightly rubbery feel of their petals. I was ready to pitch my tent and lie down to sleep beside the smooth-stone-bottomed pool that so glamorously reflected the mums’ enormous heads.
A woman crowed to her friend, “This is the color you wore to my wedding thirty years ago!” Well, yes, that butter yellow was the color of my bouquet, as it happened.
in the garden,
the worn-out sole of a shoe
Kiku plants need 14 hours of darkness every day as they develop into glamour pusses like the ones in this exhibit. They spent a lot of time with a black cloth thrown over their heads.
Now that they’re out the bees want a piece of them.
I left the gallery, walked to the exit door and stopped in my tracks. You know the way you finish a book you loved and you turn to the beginning, to the first chapter, to start again? I proceeded back into the kiku gardens and took another look at everything as if for the first time.