University of Vermont Extension
Department of Plant and Soil Science
ORIGINS OF FALL FLOWERS
Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
Gladioli, asters, chrysanthemums, and everlastings are some of our common
fall garden flowers. You may be surprised to learn the origins of these
flowers, and that others in past centuries have used them as
Most of our gladioli came from Africa, where the corms were roasted like
chestnuts and are said to taste like them. (Corms are the swollen
underground bulbous parts for storage of foods.). Even before these were
introduced during the eighteenth century, primarily from South Africa,
gladioli were familiar plants for centuries in the Mediterranean. Known in
ancient Greece, the ancient name for this flower (xiphium) means
sword, referring to the leaf shape. The Latin word for sword (gladius)
gives us the name we know today.
Rare gladioli even existed in ancient Britain, with the herbalist John
Gerard referring to them as "Sword-flag." One of the most noteworthy
gladiolus introductions was in 1904 by Francis Fox. An engineer who built a
railway bridge over the Zambesi River at Victoria Falls in Africa, Fox
discovered the gladiolus by the waterfall which is responsible for the
yellow and orange colors bred into subsequent gladioli.
Although many of our asters are native to North America (the taller New
England and shorter New York asters being the most common), most of the
cultivars have been found, and the breeding done, in England and abroad. The
English at one time called asters "starworts," referring to the star shape
of the flowers and supposed healing properties in old times (meaning of
"wort"). The herbalist John Parkinson said asters were used for "the biting
of a mad dogge."
Asters in England originally came from Europe. The plant explorer John
Tradescant the Younger (his father John also was an explorer) brought back
the first North American asters to England in 1637. These and the European
"starworts" were crossed for new introductions, with many recent selections
this century. Since they bloom around Michaelmas Day, a late September
holiday in Britain, they are referred to abroad as Michaelmas Daisies.
The fall chrysanthemum, fall mum, or hardy mum (not really hardy in northern
climates) is actually a Chinese chrysanthemum, having been cultivated in
China for 2,500 years prior to being introduced to the West. There they
symbolized a scholar in retirement and were one of the four noble plants,
along with bamboo, plum, and orchid. Dew from the petals supposedly gave
longevity, with an infusion of the petals and leaves used for wine and
Zen Buddhist monks took chrysanthemums to Japan around 400 A.D. The symbol
of the Mikado, which appeared to be a Rising Sun, was actually a 16-petaled
chrysanthemum. In 1795 the first mum was exhibited in England, with
additional plants sent from the East by tea inspector John Reeves in the
nineteenth century. The pompom mum was originally called the chusan daisy
and was sent to the West by the explorer Robert Fortune. First grown in
France, it was renamed the pompom mum because it resembled the pompoms on
sailors' hats there.
Everlastings are so called since they seem to last indefinitely. The
scientific name (Helichrysum) came from the Greek for sun (helios)
and golden (chryson). The Greeks used the flowers to make wreaths and
decorate statues of the gods, as well as to mix with honey to treat burns.
These flowers were known to the Egyptians prior to this time, however. A
strawflower, the Oriental helichrysum, was brought to England in 1619 from
Crete by way of the botanic garden in Padua, Italy.
The everlasting we know in our gardens, however, is a species (bracteatum)
from Australia. It was brought to England by Sir Joseph Banks, one of the
few men on Captain Cook's
expedition to survive. Subsequently, Victorians used everlastings to
decorate their hot and stuffy parlors where few other plants would survive.
Today the many bright colors are popular in cutting gardens and dried flower
The next time you see a modern selection of any of these four flowers, stop
a moment to recall their prestigious history--their centuries of ancestors
and the many nations and cultures that have also enjoyed or used them. More
can be found in the book by Diana Wells, 100 Flowers and How They Got