My Chinese Chrysanthemums


MY friends of the most beautiful chrysanthemum garden in all this ancient Chinese city sent me some chrysanthemum slips to-day. Two days ago the Tai-tai, lovely lady of the old Cathay, graciously requested me, assuring me of my honorableness, to have my flower-pots ready to receive their miserable and unworthy offering.

The earth, so she gently insisted, must be field earth, unrobbed of its fertility. So from the silt-rich paddy fields, outside the East Gate of our age-old city wall, have come twelve loads of black soil. Blue-coated, chattering farmer women, swaying with rhythmic grace under their balanced carrying-sticks, have carried the earth in clam-shaped baskets. The old potter, with look as ancient as the timestained widow’s arch under which his tiny shop huddles, brought some tens of his wares. The gardener journeyed to Bamboo Street to get a tray with meshes fine enough to sift the soil for the precious slips.

I learn that to-day, being the fifteenth day of the Third Moon, is the auspicious day for the sacred rite of chrysanthemum planting. It appears that the moon being full-orbed insures the flowers being likewise. Hence, that courteous insistence that I have all in readiness for this particular day.

My Tai-tai of the moth-antennæ brows gave me other lute-voiced instructions. With the sharpest of scissors must I cut the roots off each little plant. The necessity is laid upon me to shelter their tender heads from the drenching of heavy rains, and sprinkle them with the lightest of touches from a bowl of water. In the Eighth Moon, I must soak soy beans and pour the water over the plants.

An exact science, chrysanthemum raising, as well as an art, it would seem. In China, it is a scholar’s pastime, which has been known to grow into a passion. A statesman of the Tsin Dynasty, an old Chinese tale has it, forsook the highest of Imperial honors, that he might tend his beloved chrysanthemum garden. Emperors have chosen the flower as their emblem. Poets have sung it. And to all who love the chrysanthemum is bestowed the gift of the crystal heart, for it represents purity.

The yellowed pages of an ancient Chinese herb-book tell one to pick the chrysanthemums and, wrapping them in a cloth, to use the fragrant bundle as a pillow; for it will drive away evil influences and all impurities. Legend has it that there is magic in the chrysanthemum, and there are ancient ones who by eating the petals became endowed with fairy powers. They tell of a mountain where chrysanthemums grew in such riotous profusion that its sparkling springs flowed fragrant with their perfume. And the blessed folk who drank of those odor-drenched waters were remarkable for longevity.

An old bard, in the musical cadences of Chinese poetry and the colorful pictorialness of the hieroglyphics which no English rendering can convey, sings to me of chrysanthemums through the lips of a young Chinese student who is not too modern to reverence his country’s long-ago poets: —
Round, high-flung flower,
Its gold is untainted with alloy.
Planted early, blooming late,
Of the snow all unafraid,
Pouring out its petals’ oblation,
The loveliness of its heart.
Put them in your tea-cup,
A drink for the fairies.

Saturated in chrysanthemum lore, with its fairies, its magic, and its loves in old-time gardens, I was ready for the ceremonious bringing of my gift from the loveliest chrysanthemum garden of all this Chinese city. The basketful of slips held the promise of just such sheen and glory as had hushed my heart last Ninth Moon when my ladies of the cassia-bud finger-tips and the swaying bamboo grace had led me through their garden’s luring mazes.

They came—my chrysanthemum slips, each neat little bundle tied with twisted rice paper. Each was tagged bearing the name of the variety written in flowing soft-brushed Chinese hieroglyphics. These names made up a list with which Li T’ai-po might have conjured: ‘Beauty of the Palace of Han,’ ‘Gold Pine-needles,’ ‘Silver Autumn Lotus,’‘Jade-dust on the Sun,’ ‘A Skyful of Stars,’ ‘Snow of the Eastern Ocean.’

And now all my slips are cradled in the sifted earth. Sixty pottery pots sit in prim rows under a Dragon’s-Eye tree. I must bide me in patience for chrysanthemums. But in the Ninth Moon — Month of Chrysanthemums — I shall be having promises fulfilled.