Looks like I shouldn’t have pitched my old high-waisted bellbottoms…they’re making a huge comeback. And while fashion is famous for its style reincarnations, I got to wondering if the same holds true for the world of horticulture. Do plants, like fashion, go in and out of vogue?

Kiku: Chrysanthemum in Japanese

With the number of lavish autumnal displays popping up in streetscapes and botanical gardens everywhere, I had to look no further than the stalwart chrysanthemum to find my answer.

Once relegated to homecoming corsages, funeral wreaths and New Year’s Day floats, the ho-hum mum is being reinvented in ways that would make Madonna envious. Take the recent Kiku exhibit (chrysanthemum in Japanese) at the New York Botanic Garden. You just can’t imagine the astonishing things their hort staff can do with an ordinary mum. Chrysanthemum contortion is an ancient Japanese art with a surprisingly modern aesthetic. At a glance, the incredible mass of a thousand chrysanthemum blooms, Ozukuri, looks awesome because of its sheer scale and presence. But, take a closer peek and you’ll discover that what appears to be a gigantic bouquet of cut flowers is really hundreds upon hundreds of flower heads emanating from a single living stem!

A couple of years ago I joined a Garden Club of America group for a behind-the-scenes tour of the NYBG. It was there that I caught my first clue that mums were on their way back. We learned how Kiku masters are specially trained in Japan to nurture, cajole, prod and prune chrysanthemums of all cultivars and colors into incredible formations—everything from cascades to bridges to towers. A full year of painstaking devotion goes into each design all for a fleeting moment of glory.

New-found mum love is catching on…

Other botanical gardens are finding new ways to celebrate with chrysanthemums too. From Longwood to Lauritzen, from Brookside to the Chicago Botanic, mums the word and the rage this fall.

Footnote: All this mum gawking got me inspired to try my hand at Kiku Ningyo, a style where Japanese historical figures are depicted all dressed up with, you guessed it, chrysanthemums. My twist: embellish mossy mannequins with mum-filled martinis and bikini tops bursting with mums. I’m calling them Thelma and Louise…just a couple of cool chicks just hanging out together in my fall garden.