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The Many Meanings of Mums

Picture of Kiyoko Nakatsui

Kiyoko Nakatsui

Education Coordinator

The chrysanthemum is a beautiful flower with so much meaning behind it.  ‘Mums’ are often associated with the arrival of fall as they bloom during this season and are very popular.  As we are currently enjoying the fall season, let’s enjoy the beautiful chrysanthemums!

In the US, the chrysanthemum generally symbolizes friendship, happiness, and well-being. However, If you want to express your sorrow or neglected love you would give a bouquet of yellow chrysanthemums.  This may be quite confusing if you handed these same flowers to someone in Japan.  The yellow or golden chrysanthemum represents longevity, rejuvenation, nobility, and is the symbol of the imperial family.

In Japan the chrysanthemum is known as a “kiku” and is considered extremely auspicious.  You will see it as a motif on accessories, porcelains, kimono, and obi, as well as the 50 yen coin.  The reverence for this flower originates from the 5th century when the flower was introduced to Japan from China.  It even has its own holiday, National Chrysanthemum Day, which was established in 910 AD and is a festival of happiness.  

The chrysanthemum used by the royal family is yellow and multilayered, with 16 petals to the front and back.  The Imperial Seal of Japan or National Seal of Japan is also known as the Chrysanthemum Flower Seal or Imperial Chrysanthemum Emblem.  The Emperor and members of the Imperial Family use this as their crest, also known as a mon.  Every family has a mon that is passed down patrilinealy, many depicting flowers and foliage, to be used to adorn traditional dress and documents, among other things.  The chrysanthemum mon is exclusive to the imperial family.

Although we do see stark contrasts in the meanings behind flowers, there are those that transcend cultures.  In Japan, Korea, China, Belgium, France, Austria, and other western European countries the white chrysanthemum is used as a memorial flower to honor loved ones and to place on their graves.  The white chrysanthemum symbolizes grief and lamentation in these countries, whereas in the US it symbolizes loyalty and honesty.

In Korea you will see large flower arrangements surrounding a photo of the deceased on an altar, along with large standing spray flower arrangements displayed on easels.  Traditionally, these flower arrangements always contain white chrysanthemums, if not being almost exclusively white chrysanthemums.  This is similar to the traditions in China and Japan.  It is also common to see yellow chrysanthemums at funerals in these countries.

In the European countries mentioned above there are   similar traditions surrounding funeral flowers, with arrangements containing white chrysanthemums being favorable.  The tradition of flowers at funerals is one that we can consider a universal language but there are significant nuances of meaning depending on the culture or country.  

A bouquet of red roses.  Without saying a word, these flowers speak a thousand and boldly express love to those who receive them.  But just like spoken language, the language of flowers isn’t universal and has many nuances across different varieties, colors.and countries.