This week I found myself in a rabbit hole of information about small flowers called Chrysanthemums (Don’t worry Mom and Dad, I was still studying as well). In learning about the chrysanthemum, I feel as if I’ve accidentally stumbled into a world of, what I suppose could be called: “cultural biology.”
In China and Japan, the flower was regarded as a symbol for the elite. During the Meiji period, the emperor of Japan adopted the chrysanthemum as a symbol for the Imperial family, and…planted… its image on shrines and the clothing of fellow upper class members. In the sphere of traditional ink-and-wash painting, it is regarded as one of the “Four Gentleman” or “Four Noble Ones”, a group of plants including the plum blossom, the orchid, and bamboo.
To me, the chrysanthemum’s cultural symbolism is related to many aspects of its biology. In a short story called The Wild Chrysanthemum, Ch’oe Chongui, one of the most successful female early-modern writers in Korea, uses the wild flowers as a metaphor for the life of the Japanese soldier in World War II. In the midst of war, the soldier was trained quickly and sent to the front with the dreary possibility of death. I compared this to the chrysanthemum’s classification as an herbaceous perennial plant, in which it grows for two seasons but dies at the end of its growth. The chrysanthemum is an inflorescent subshrub. It has no direct stem to the ground and sits amidst a cluster of other flowers upon the top of a voluminous and complicated array of branches. Much like the Japanese imperial training of soldiers, a subshrub like the chrysanthemum must be pruned and shaped – to reveal its form but also to foster its apparent health (these interpretations are lofty, but still pretty fun to think about).
In the end, as we go about our daily lives we can sometimes forget about the quiet realm of plants that share our world. We can forget that a plant is living and “breathing” with us, absorbing energy for survival through soiled-covered roots, through the sunlight that warms our face and through the CO2 that we exhale. A plant mostly appears static and passive, at the mercy of the winds and elements that pass over it; and in its stillness we may only regard its immediate, aesthetic appearance, despite the fact that we are actively exchanging the vital chemicals that allow us to move around and for the chrysanthemum to sit where it sits in beauty.