If there is one certain sign of fall having taken hold across Long Island, it is the sight of mums brightening endless front stoops, gardens and nurseries—as well as showing off their beauty and complexity at the Annual Long Island Chrysanthemum Show this coming weekend.
From a history dating back to 15th century B.C. China, where chrysanthemums were cultivated as a flowering herb and were believed to have the power of life, to today’s range of 13 different bloom types and a wide variety of colors, there is a great deal more to these fantastic flowering plants than simply providing autumn décor, according to John Capobianco, president of the Long Island Chrysanthemum Society.
“Mums are complicated,” says Capobianco, who is also the owner of Melville-based landscape gardening company Capobianco Creations.
“Mums are such a complex plant,” he says. “There are varieties that have very small flowers with blooms that are maybe an inch across and have flexible stems. They adapt to training, like you would use on a pine or juniper tree to make it look like a bonsai.”
The Long Island Chrysanthemum Society has been around since 1950. Today, there are about 20 active members. Capobianco recalled, “years ago we used to have 100 members and they were talking about splitting off into two chapters. And then things started changing. People aged out, real estate got a lot more expensive and younger people didn’t have the time or the energy to devote to grow the exhibition mums.
“They are a labor of love and you need to pay attention to them if you want to grow a blue-ribbon bloom,” he says.
Capobianco’s love for mums began in 1991 when he was studying how to create bonsai trees. “There was a fall flower show at the Planting Fields Arboretum. My bonsai instructor brought me there to set up Japanese maples and pine trees. We took a tour of the show and I saw this room filled with flowers. I asked my instructor what they were. When he told me they were chrysanthemums, I didn’t believe him at first. I was used to the ones you would see in the supermarket.”
When Capobianco entered the room, he saw little dishes with tiny flowers. “My instructor told me they were bonsai made with chrysanthemums and that they were no good.”
That’s all Capobianco had to hear. The gauntlet was thrown, and 30 years later, Capobianco is now a national champion and bonsai trainer, as well as a past president of the National Chrysanthemum Society, Inc. USA, the organization that oversees the shows and trainings for people who grow mums to exhibit.
“Back in the day,” Capobianco recalls, “people used to grow football mums that are anywhere between 4 and 12 inches across—a single bloom as opposed to what you see in the stores now which are modern hybrids that have been bred to be self-branching so you don’t have to any maintenance pruning them.
“They are a great little workhorse, but what people don’t realize is mums are perennials. If they were purchased in the spring and planted in the ground, come fall they would have a colony of mums that would last for years and years. So, if you buy them in the fall you have to treat them like an annual.”
Bonsai mums are classified by their height, their shape and distribution of their trunk and how the foliage and flowers are arranged.
“At the national show there’s a certain level of competition, where you have to carry a minimum of 30 square feet of show floor with chrysanthemums. I have won the national gold medal seven times for a display of chrysanthemum bonsai,” he says. “You don’t go up against anyone, you go against an imaginary perfection in the judge’s mind. So, if you want to win a Blue Ribbon, you have to put some work into it.”
Capobianco will be showing off his entries this October 22 and 23 at the 67th Annual Long Island Chrysanthemum Show, hosted by Starkie Brothers in Farmingdale. For more information, visit LIMums.org.