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Plant Profiles

Cathy's Rust chrysanthemum

chrysanthemum-cathys-rust-fingers-640

 

The last of the hardy mums, 'Cathy's Rust', is as appealing to insects as it is to gardeners.  It's one final jolt of fresh color before Winter slumps down upon us.

 

This year, I'm more grateful for these flowers than usual.  The groundhog finally discovered that chrysanthemum leaves are as tasty as those of dahlias, which means I had almost no flowers on either this season.  This one little spray of flowers, indeed, is the totality of bloom for Cathy this year; it was the only stem too high for Mr. Groundhog to demolish.

 

But now that "spray" is in mind, next year I'll concoct some sort of fabulously yucky spritz for both the mums and the dahlias.  What about blending garlic-infused olive oil and fish emulsion?  And—I know!—topping off with urine.  Savory indeed, and worth buying a blender for.

 

For good measure, I'll also spread heavily-used cat litter around the plants, too.  With three kitties that are exclusively housecats, there's never a shortage of that. 

 

One spray or another, next year I'll have a bumper crop of this gorgeous mum. 

 

 

Here's how to grow this late-season mum:

 

Latin Name

Chrysanthemum 'Cathy's Rust'

Common Name

Cathy's Rust chrysanthemum

Family

Asteraceae, the Aster family.

What kind of plant is it

Herbaceous perennial.

Hardiness

Zones 4 - 9

Habit

Clumping when young, gently spreading in maturity.

Rate of Growth

Fast.

Size in ten years

Chrysanthemums are usually divided every few years, and pinched a couple of times in Spring and early Summer, so free-range dimensions aren't relevant.  Pinched just once, in May, 'Cathy's Rust' might still be two feet tall.  Unpinched, nearly three.

Texture

Because mums are pinched in Spring and early Summer—two, three, or even four times—density of growth (and therefore a greater profusion of the late-season flowers) is the goal.  Low uniformity of growth is a by-product.  In leaf and in flower, then, well-grown mums bring a tight mounding element to plantings that may or may not, in itself, be appealing. 

Grown for

the flowers: To call any reddish-tan flower "rust" is accurate but, to me, too reminiscent of the plant disease or of old plumbing.  (And "Cathy's rust" sounds vaguely medical.  "Cathy has rust, again?  Golly, she just can't catch a break.")  Instead, I like to say that this mum's flowers are terra cotta in color.  Then again, 'Cathy's Terra-Cotta' has its own confusions; it sounds euphemistically psychological, as in "Cathy's terra cotta again, the poor dear.  Just bonkers."

 

The yellow of the tiny disk flowers at the center is nicely repeated in the yellow blush at the tips of the petals.

 

its reliability:  'Cathy's Rust' is a truly hardy mum, not one of the florist mums that don't overwinter if planted out in the Fall, and still wouldn't overwinter even if you planted them when mums do get planted, in the Spring.

Flowering season

Late:  Mid-November for me.

Color combinations

The terra-cotta and strong yellow of the flowers go beautifully with Fall's predominant oranges, yellows, and reds.  To my eye, though, the pinks, purples, and blues of other Fall daisies, such as asters and other mums, would be quite a jangle.  Even white would be a stretch.

Partner plants

Amsonia hubrichtii is justly reknowned for its thread-like foliage, which turns bright yellow in Fall, as well as its gracefully billowing habit, both of which would be a welcome counterpoint to the mum's density and it's-all-about-the-flowers talents.  The burgundy and red Fall foliage of purple-leaved Japanese maples would be another inspiration.  The fire-engine red berries of winterberry bushes, Ilex verticillata, would be a thrill on several counts:  The bush's branches are contrastingly leafless by November, the hard round berries echo the circles of the mum's disks, and, if you plant the dwarf cultivar, 'Red Sprite', all of this appeal is right down at the mum's low altitude.

Where to use it in your garden

Hardy mums usually find themselves planted towards the front of the bed, so you can cut a few stems for bouquets without having to tromp into soil that, by the blooming season in October and November, is going to be muddy.  Also, the eager daisy flowers are a real pleasure to appreciate at close range, not least because they attract late-season pollinators.  

Culture

Full sun, almost any soil as long as good Winter drainage is guaranteed.

How to handle it: The Basics

Plant in Spring.  Even small starter plants often become full-sized by the time they start into bloom in the Fall, so don't worry if they're modest sprigs in May. 

 

If your plant was taller than eight inches at planting, pinch off the top two inches.  You can "pinch" literally, with just your fingers.  Being as obsessive and ruthless as you can, pinch subsequent new growth as soon as it gets a few inches long, too.  Plan on pinching at least twice more by mid-July; three times more if you can manage it.  Don't pinch past July, though; if you pinch into August you're likely to delay the start of flowering.  As it is, 'Cathy's Rust' is unusually late-blooming, so the last thing you'd want is for it to be even later.

 

Despite your diligent pinching, it could still happen that the plants start to get a little splayed and sprawly as they come into bud in October.  A well-angled but short length of pea stake jabbed into the soil can often shore up a whole plant; mum's all have fibrous roots, so even if you need to jab right alongside the stem, you won't do any damage. 

 

Water deeply once a week if your Summer's torrid and dry, but mums are tough, and their thick and somewhat fuzzy foliage helps them handle occasional drought.

 

I leave the spent flowering stems in place all Winter, but from sloth more than wisdom.  For any plants that are marginally hardy, leaving their stems in place through the Winter is always a help.  For one, the stems diffuse the wind, so reduce wind chill.  For another, stems that aren't cut remain sealed against the Winter; stems that are can sometimes be (or become) handle little tubes to shunt freezing water all the more quickly down to the roots.  'Cathy's Rust' is hardy to Zone 4, though.  Even so, definitely leave the stems in place the first season or even two, when your plant is establishing.  After that, suit yourself.

 

Mums spread outward, often more rapidly than you'd think, and by the second Spring that one-stemmed starter plant will often be sprouting eight or ten stems or more.  And only a couple of years later, you'll want to dig around the perimeter of your now-hefty colony to control its spread.  You also may find that the center of the colony—which is the oldest part—is getting thinner and less floriferous, too.  On both counts, then, every few years dig the entire colony up in early Spring; mums' roots are both shallow and intertwined, so this can feel like you're rolling up a stretch of carpet.  Save just a few hunks of new growth from the perimeter to replant where you'd like the colony to start afresh, and compost everything else.

 

How to handle it: Another option—or two?

Because mums are bland just in leaf and blob-like when "well grown" in terms of maximized flower production and minimized floppyness, it's best to use them sparingly.  If you have the space and the energy, their most exciting use would be in a special bed (or even a whole little garden) just for plants whose display peaks in the Fall.  Then your mums's perky neatness wouldn't be sullied by the ever-increasing seasonal entropy of the Fall garden at large.

Quirks or special cases

None.

 

Downsides

Mums are a challenge in plantings that aren't meant to be seen only when they're in bloom.  The plants grow as thickly as groundcovers, and start into growth promptly in the Spring—but the foliage and form are ho-hum month after month as you wait for the flowers to appear in late Summer and Fall.  Plus, the plants do best with full sun.  So it's not practical to interplant with species that peak earlier in the season, and which would bring some relief to the mum's boring Spring and Summer look.  They couldn't compete with the mum's roots, and would shade the mum's foliage.

 

Yes, chrysanthemums do provide one last splash of newly-arriving color and excitement before Winter tamps down garden interest to less raucous things like bark, berries, stalwart evergreens, and whatever small cold-weather flowers, such as witch hazels, are possible in your climate.  But having a mum's patch of fresh and dense floriferousness amid long stretches of garden that are, all too often, looking scraggly already and, given one more frost, are going to look out-and-out wrecked?  That does no favor to the mums or the surrounding gardens.  Mums can't "save" gardens that don't already have a healthy dose of Fall-peaking plants in them.   

Variants

Chrysanthemums rival roses, dahlias, and iris in their diversity, with over twenty species that, over several centuries, have mutated and have been hybridized into thousands of cultivars.  It's an indication of the subtleties among the throngs of plants in this enormous group of plants that the family Chrysanthemum was, for a time, renamed as well as divided into families including Dendranthemum, Nipponanthemum, Leucanthemum, and others—only to be reorganized again, but in reverse, with Chrysanthemum once again the botanical name of just about anything you'd think of as a "hardy mum." 

 

Mum flowers—and mums are, indeed, all about the flowers—can be had in almost any color (and almost any combination of colors) from white to yellow to pink to purple to orange to red.  Only true asters, though, have flowers that are blue.  Mum flowers range in size from barely an inch across to three, four, and five inches; if plants are disbudded or  grown for exhibition, flowers can be larger still.  Plant size is, ultimately, less variable because almost all the taller mums perform best in gardens when pinched a couple of times in May and June; they wind up about as low and bushy as the cultivars that grow lower and bushier all by themselves.

 

Availability

On-line. 

Propagation

By division of the clumps in Spring. 

Native habitat

Chrysanthemums are native to Europe and Asia.  Most of the mums that grow in gardens (as opposed to in greenhouses, as production plants to buy, potted and in bloom, at the grocery store) are complex hybrids that include C. indicum, which is native to China and Japan.

 
 
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