Chrysanthemum’s the word: a flower in need of nurture

Jools Gilson’s very personal radio documentary rehabilitates the reputation of the ‘forecourt flower’

Gilson describes the giant puffball white flower as looking like ‘a snowball had been stuck on to a stem’

Gilson describes the giant puffball white flower as looking like ‘a snowball had been stuck on to a stem’


Chrysanthemums. Somewhere along the way, they have got a bad name. Wrapped in polythene and dumped in buckets of water at petrol stations, they’ve become associated with guilty last-minute purchases.

They seem to have a whiff of the mass-produced, representing the antithesis of the charm of home-grown flowers, or anything that would be entered in a horticultural show.

But those chrysanthemums are not the kind of flowers that Jools Gilson has focused on, in the documentary she has made for BBC Radio 4, Chrysanthemum .

Gilson is originally from Kent in England. One of her early memories is visiting her grandparents in their village, High Cross. Her grandfather William Bowman, a father of 10 children, walked three miles to work in a factory each day, poached rabbits and grew enough vegetables and fruit to feed his large family.

He had additional allotment spaces beyond his own back garden. And he grew prize-winning flowers, specifically chrysanthemums.

“I was very young when he died, but I remember the flowers in the garden,” recalls Gilson. “He grew chrysanthemums, mainly white and yellow. It’s the white ones I remember best. He didn’t have a greenhouse, so he had to put paper bags over the blooms to protect them. You couldn’t see the flowers, only the bags. But when they were cut, inside the house, you could see them then.”

‘Snowball on a stem’
In her documentary, Gilson describes the giant puffball white flower as looking like “a snowball had been stuck on to a stem”.

To exhibit chrysanthemums competitively, only one bloom per stem can be submitted; the others are cut off so that all the nutrients can be diverted to a single bloom.

Bowman did not have a car, so he only showed his carefully nurtured chrysanthemums at local shows. “They were very serious affairs. They were only local shows, but they were big deals,” she says. Anyone who saw the episode of Downton Abbey in which the Duchess and her gardener had a showdown about their roses will understand what she means.

Gilson, who has a background in dance and theatre, came to Ireland in 1996 to teach at University College Cork. She is associate director on the new creative writing MA programme.

She had made other, family themed documentaries, which aired on RTÉ Radio, including the award-winning Los Preciosos , about her two adopted children from Guatemala.

She also made Ois ín’s Story , about a child of friends who has Prader-Willi syndrome; a condition where the person cannot judge when they are full and keep eating unless controlled.

In Chrysanthemum , Gilson revisits her aunts in England, who recount their memories of the father who grew flowers just because he loved them, not because they were useful.

Their voices dip in and out of the narrative, and the names of the many varieties of the blooms are incanted like mantras. She also talks to a prize-winning grower, Ivor Mace, and visits a Chinese tea ceremony. The flowers are used in Chinese medicine, in herbal remedies and teas.

Labour of love
When researching the documentary, she discovered that some varieties of the flower have to be grown in a greenhouse, and blacked out from light 14 hours a day for 30 days. Not to mention the additional controls to humidity, heat and water.

“When you are showing flowers, the skill is getting them all in bloom at the same time for the day of the show.”

The show flowers Gilson’s grandfather grew were huge tight puffball blooms; usually white or sunshine yellow. You will not see those varieties for sale in any petrol station. In fact, there used to be hundreds of flower farms that grew chrysanthemums commercially in Britain. Now, according to Gilson, there is one.

“It’s a dying passion,” she says. “They are flowers that were very popular in the Victorian era, but they really need nurturing and are much less popular now.”

There are no flowers left now in the old Gilson family garden in High Cross. The house has long since been sold, so she had no opportunity to transplant bulbs, should any still have existed. But in her grandfather’s memory, she grows red, yellow and orange chrysanthemums in her garden in Cork.

Chrysanthemum , written and presented by Jools Gilson, is on BBC Radio 4 tonight at 9.02pm

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