[Viewpoint]Cosmos Flowers Conjure Nostalgia

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[Viewpoint]Cosmos Flowers Conjure Nostalgia

Fall is deepening. The morning chill is upon us, and the air is no longer filled with ear-deafening sounds of buzzing insects. Trees in the faraway mountain tops are beginning to acquire their autumnal tints, and those lining the streets are shedding their leaves to enter a slimming regimen in preparation for winter.

Autumn flowers are a source of comfort in this season of approaching bleakness. Coming face to face with the innocence of wild chrysanthemums growing in the mountains, and seeing the same flowers peeping out shyly from behind soy sauce jars in traditional Korean houses, we can feel a joy akin to that of encountering long-forgotten childhood friends.

Our Korean ancestors were extremely fond of chrysanthemums. They were one of the most frequently used motifs in Koryo inlaid blue celadon teacups, and many masterpieces among Choson white porcelain with cobalt-blue flower decorations featured chrysanthemums. The literati also sang the praises of chrysanthemums.

Modern people do not feel such lyricism when they see chrysanthemums, however. A friend of mine decided to grow flowers, and placed a row of potted white and yellow chrysanthemums in the balcony. His wife complained that the flowers reminded her of a home where a funeral was being conducted.

Cosmos, rather than chrysanthemum, are the flowers that elicit lyricism in us today. Cosmos flowers growing by the roadside, displaying their purple, pink and white blossoms, have become synonymous with the nostalgia and sentiment we feel in autumn. Embarrassed by such feelings, we avoid speaking of our feelings and pretend they are only for young girls.

The cosmos, so beloved by Koreans, is not native to Korea. It is a foreign species, originally from Mexico. Cosmos reportedly began to grow on Korean soil only about a hundred years ago.

This is why writers of a century ago described the appeal of cosmos as "exotic," but held such native flowers as the eulalia or China aster in greater regard as the symbol of autumn. But just as red peppers came to symbolize Korean food three hundred years after their introduction, cosmos are now widely perceived as a flower indigenous to Korea.

From a botanical point of view, foreign species are said to take root only when the native soil is vulnerable to invasion. Foreign plants and flowers, no matter how strong and healthy, cannot put down roots in Korea if the soil is in a healthy state. Today, foreign species such as pokeweed from the United States or Mexican cosmos are growing rampantly in Korea. They were able to spread rapidly after the land was dug up indiscriminately in the name of development and turned into wasteland. Condition the soil, however, and native plants and flowers overwhelm introduced species in the end. Not every introduced species bodes bad news. The introduction of foreign species helps to diversify the distribution of native plants.

Cosmos was first introduced to Korea when earthmoving for highway construction stripped away topsoil. Cosmos, which originally grew in barren areas of Mexico, began to take root and flourish, and are commonly seen beside roadways today.

Pokeweed is different in that it crowds out native plants to take over their places. In contrast, cosmos flowers serve to fill the space left empty or avoided by native plants. It is natural for such a species to earn our affection, especially when it is as pretty as a cosmos. The rivers and mountains of Korea come together harmoniously in a glorious vista in fall--wild chrysanthemums adorning the mountains, chrysanthemum flowers decorating the courtyards of houses, and cosmos gracing the roads. I think I have found a clue to the answer in the ongoing debate about foreign influences and their effect on Korean culture when I look at cosmos and think about how they moved into our life and adopted Korean citizenship.

Yoo Hong-jun
Professor at Yeungnam University.
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