Since the first show was held in 1916, the Wellington Chrysanthemum show in the first week of May has been an important event on the town's cultural calendar. What started as a hobby is nowadays taken seriously and the grower of the champion flower receives a place of honour in the annals of the Chrysanthemum Association. During the past 105 years the show has been cancelled on only two occasions, both due to abnormal conditions: in 1947 during the Second World War, and in 2020.
Due to Covid, visitors were limited to 100. Thanks to the relaxation of lockdown regulations, a century long tradition could be continued this year. Over the years there have been many challenges such as droughts, war and last year the covid pandemic, but the chrysanthemum growers manage to exhibit an average of 500 flowers of show quality every year. It is not without reason that the chrysanthemum is known as the Queen of Autumn. The guest speaker, Dr Elna von Slicht, mayor of the Cape Winelands, encouraged growers to continue the tradition, before announcing the winners.
The overall winner and grower of this year's champion bloom is Prof Michael le Cordeur, chair of the Department of Curriculum Studies in the Education Faculty, who has been growing chrysanthemums for the past 30 years. He learned his art from his father, Michael le Cordeur Senior (86) who himself cultivated the bloom for 60 years and at the age of 83 was adjudged champion grower. “It is a tradition which is carried over from generation to generation", Michael Jnr says. Michael senior is currently lifelong president of the association while Michael Junior is a former chairperson.
“Deep in your heart you always hope to win something, but never in my wildest dreams did I think that I would win so many prizes," he said. Le Cordeur won the following 14 trophies: Best 3 Enhono-blooms, best Louisa Pocket, best Alfred Simpson, best Reflex-bloom (Jessie Hapgood), best light bloom (Kinnzanne), best dark bloom (Enhono), best intermediate bloom (B) (Racoon), best intermediate bloom (A) (Kocka Shishi), best medium bloom (Stokes Eclipse), best large bloom (Enhono), shield for most point, the Freddie Cyster trophy for the best Aristocrat spider bloom, champion spider bloom (bronze medal) (Bon Voyage) and the champion bloom (Mount Shasta) (silver medal from the National Chrysanthemum Association). This also includes smaller prizes.
What made the occasion extra special was that the Kwela Television team from KykNet covered the show this year and broadcast it on Sunday 30 May on national TV. “Now I have some way of sharing my special day in the future with my loved ones and friends", he said afterwards.
To grow chrysanthemums of show quality is very hard work. “It requires attention and time. It takes exactly 9 months from the planting before the baby is born and you can see the bloom in your garden," he says. It starts with the soil composition as well as a balanced and regular feeding programme. The chrysanthemum came to us from Japan and China via England. Many of Michael's flowers – as the names indicate – were imported from Japan. Because it is an exotic flower, it has many natural enemies and requires regular pest control.
He has long done research on suitable soil composition and feeding and adapts it for Wellington's hot climate: in the summer the temperature regularly rises to 40 degrees C. Currently he uses only organic nutrition because one must also keep soil conservation in mind. He makes his own compost and every vegetable leaf, eggshell and fruit skin is collected carefully by his wife, Sonia. Nothing is thrown away. Over the years Sonia has herself become knowledgeable about chrysanthemum cultivation.
“Every crisis, such as the Covid-19 pandemic, brings forth something good. The drought taught us to be less dependent on tap water," he says. His research has shown that rain water makes for better results. Thus, he has already installed three water tanks with a water pump. “The Coronavirus forced us to spend more time in the garden at home." He could thus do in-depth research and record what had led to better results. He plans to publish his research and results in a botanical journal, after which he plans to write a guide to the cultivation of chrysanthemums.
Le Cordeur is known as a researcher and author on language and education and is a regular commentator in die media on language and education matters. He has his own column every fortnight in the local newspaper Die Burger and also writes for the Daily Maverick. Amongst others he was recognised as one of Stellenbosch University's Media thought leaders (2018). He received the university's Chancellors award in 2014 and the Neville Alexander award for his lifelong contribution to Afrikaans.
“Growing Chrysanthemums is something which I would recommend to anyone. The time I spent with my blooms is very therapeutic. After a long day at the office or in the class, this is where I relax." Every flower has a name and he knows what each one's ailment or strong point is. He winks when he relates that he often talks to his flowers and encourages them to excel.
“The best part of it all is that they never talk back!"
Picture: Le Cordeur in his Chrysanthemum Hothouse.