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Mum's the word for fall flowers

The Chrysanthemum Festival at Longwood Gardens is the Rose Bowl of mum festivals. Its outsized reputation matches that of the gardens' founder, Pierre du Pont, the industrial baron of chemical-company fame.

At this yearly event, the gardening staff trot out varieties of mums never seen at supermarkets or Home Depot. These include plants whose individual flowers are the size of salad plates, or are shaped like Fourth of July sparklers, or have tiny daisylike blooms.

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Some have been meticulously sheared into living curtains, formed into giant mounds, twisted into spiral topiary, or clipped into bonsai - all testifying to their Asian lineage.

Even those who feel curmudgeonly about mass-produced mums, considering them floral clichés, can't help being impressed by the legions of orderly blooms marching in formation at Longwood. Thankfully, the garden's designers have stuck to traditional fall hues, emphasizing russet, maroon, amber, and yellow, rather than the vivid pinks that clash with autumn's more subdued natural palette.

Still, tastefuloverstatement is the signature style of Longwood Gardens. In the early 1900s, du Pont bought a 200-acre farm near Philadelphia, added land to it, and eventually built enormous glass conservatories, outdoor fountains, and show gardens. The property now includes more than 1,000 acres and draws hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.

The chrysanthemum display requires much planning and intensive pruning. Yoko Arakawa leads a troop of gardeners who grow the plants in an extensive network of greenhouses. She starts most of the cuttings about 10 months ahead, with the "thousand blooms" mums having been started more than two years before their debut. "Thousand blooms" involve elaborate pruning, staking, and training of a single Kenbu mum that will carry 120 to 150 perfectly positioned blooms. In summer, during the flush of growth, the more than 18,000 plants must be sheared by hand every other week.

Ms. Arakawa learned the centuries-old, labor-intensive techniques in her native Japan. She says chrysanthemums are found in every Japanese temple and shrine in the autumn. Hobbyists, especially retired people, grow and enter mums in competitions throughout the country. "Bonsai [forms of mums] are very popular," she says. "People like to brag about them."

The results at Longwood stagger the imagination. In addition to the brightly colored blooms, a pair of gold-leafed screens painted with chrysanthemums and morning glories - commissioned just for this year's festival - lends an elegant note in the main conservatory.

Chrysanthemums were grown in China for more than 2,500 years before they were first exhibited in England in 1795. Depending on which legend you believe, the blossoms floated to the Japanese islands or Buddhist monks brought the flower there in AD 400.

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Japan's emperors admired the flower so extravagantly that their shape was used in the imperial crest. And "the chrysanthemum throne" has become a synonym for the Japanese monarchy.

While the regal flower has won hearts in Asia, Australia, and Britain, it is not so warmly regarded in parts of Europe, where chrysanthemums are associated with death. In fact, in some countries mums are used exclusively to decorate graves.

For the American home gardener, mums provide the last gasp of color before winter sets in (see accompanying sidebar). And, if you're truly ambitious, a bit of pruning and a watchful eye could yield a plant to rival those at Longwood. Then again, maybe not.

The Chrysanthemum Festival continues at Longwood Gardens through Nov. 23. For more information, write Route 1, PO Box 501, Kennett Square, PA 19348-0501; telephone (610) 388-1000; or go to www.longwoodgardens.org.

Smith College also has a chrysanthemum show, in Northampton, Mass. It ends Nov. 16. See www.smith.edu.

Growing mums

Chrysanthemums are the workhorses of the floral world. They form the backbone of most autumn gardens in the United States, appearing in pots on doorsteps and in storefront displays. US growers sell about $130 million worth annually, and chrysanthemums rank No. 2 on the list of top cut flowers (after carnations). Growers have seen sales of mums increase tenfold since the 1970s.

To grow hardy mums at home, plant them in a spot that has well-drained soil and receives at least half a day of sun. Water regularly so the plants don't wilt, but try to keep the water off the leaves (to avoid mildew).

Beginning in spring, work a granular fertilizer into the soil around the plant monthly or feed twice-monthly with a water-soluble fertilizer for flowering plants. (No need to fertilize fall-planted mums.)

When young mums develop six inches of new growth, pinch off half of it. Repeat this procedure until July 10-15 in colder climates, July 20-Aug. 1 in warmer ones. This develops bushy, compact plants with many flowers.

To encourage hardy mums to last over winter in colder climates:

• Keep them watered.

• Don't prune back the plants until spring.

• After several hard frosts, mulch with straw or evergreen boughs. (Remove gradually in the spring.)

For more information about chrysanthemums, visit www.mums.org.