The chrysanthemums of Central Park


Run, don’t walk, to Central Park. Go. Right now. And, no, I’m not talking about jogging, about getting yourself up and out, fit and in shape. That can wait until later obviously… I’m really talking about seeing the annual fall chrysanthemum display. It’s at its full, glorious peak this week.

What? Central Park has a mum display, you ask? Annually? That might come as news to people. Even some New Yorkers. But Central Park’s huge. There are secret corners with things many never seem to see, know, feel. So, yes, Virginia, there is an annual display.

Central Park’s chrysanthemum festival isn’t of the infinitely formal kiku of botanical gardens, the horticultural tour-de-force that excites such awe and amazement at its patient, zen-like creation. Nor the plump, farmed mum balls that seem to invade the homescape by the millions and millions this time of year, as far as the eye can see. If your heart’s set on kiku, I’d highly suggest the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx. Or Longwood Gardens, further afield in Philadelphia. Mum balls are available from every corner deli in the City.

There’s something a bit different going on with the chrysanthemums of Central Park.

Every autumn, about this time, the north side of the Conservatory Garden breaks into a garland of exuberance that surely shouldn’t be missed. Located in the far northeast corner of the Park, along Fifth Avenue just below the Harlem Meer, this garden took its name from the decaying conservatory

greenhouse that was pulled down in 1934. The area was symmetrically resigned by Gilmore D. Clark, a landscape architect to Robert Moses, and opened to the public in 1937.

The north end is slightly sunken, formal and French, a large oval laid out around a central fountain, with clipped hedges and benches. Four rose arbors anchor the corners and break the oval into four sweeping, sloped arcs. In the spring, the tulips hold court. In the fall, mums. But these aren’t those fat, round cushions of color plopped into every tree well in the City from here to there. Nope.

The formality of this garden is broken by the spirited display of those other kinds of mums,
Chrysanthemum x rubellum, commonly known as Korean mums here. I’m not really sure how they got that name
because Korean Mums don’t actually have anything to do wth Korea. They were originally bred by Alexander Munnings at Bristol Nursery in Connecticut. Go figure. For hosta fiends, that’s also the birthplace of Hosta ‘Frances Williams. Korean mums went back to their roots. Unlike florists’ mums, wilder-looking and hardier. With simpler flowers in a diversity of shape and color that makes them look like daisies on a psychedelic trip.

Hundreds of selections have probably come and gone since their early Bristol days. The display in the Conservatory Garden makes no note of any of them. And is the better for it. They’re just massed for the joy and cheerful tumble. So stroll on by. Jog on by. Grab a sandwich for lunch on a bench. Whatever you want. But don’t miss it. The bees certainly aren’t!


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