This heirloom flower lights up my garden each fall.

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I’ve never been a big fan of potted mums. Maybe it’s because they’re usually displayed on front porches and my two pink flamingoes don’t need the competition. Or maybe it’s because I’m a gardeny person who likes plants that experience life in the ground and get bigger and better with age. The latter is certainly the case with this special mum that goes by the name of ‘Cathy’s Rust.’

I’ve never seen flowers this color before. From the name, you might say rusty-red with yellow centers, but that doesn’t quite get it. I feel like describing them in the fashion of a hoity-toity wine connoisseur assessing a fine vintage. “As buds open, I sense cherry tomato-red, transitioning as flowers age to lighter pumpkin-coral with notes of persimmon, sawblade rust, and terra-cotta, finishing with suggestions of ripened peaches and ‘Cox’s Orange Pippin’ apple.” Yep, that’s what I see.

You won't find 'Cathy's Rust' chrysanthemum at your average garden center because it isn't grown by the millions in greenhouses for the Halloween to Thanksgiving garden market. It's a passalong variety shared from friend to friend down through the generations. I got mine from Jason Powell, owner of Petals from the Past Nursery in Jemison, Alabama, who specializes in heirloom plants. His original plant came from his friend, Cathy Blackwell, who in turn got from her mother. Where her mother got it is lost to history. If people hadn't loved and shared it, it may well have disappeared from the face of the Earth.

Cathy's Rust Mum
Credit: Steve Bender

Sharing this mum is easy. Growing 2 to 3 feet tall and wide, it forms an ever-expanding clump. When the clump gets too big, you just divide it in spring or after it finishes flowering in fall and gift the divisions. It is very easy to grow. It needs only full to part sun, well-drained soil, and occasional watering during summer droughts. To keep the stems from getting too long and lanky, I cut them back by half in June. Depending on where you live, you can expect weeks of flowers in September, October, and November. Blooms attract butterflies and hummers and also make long-lasting cut flowers. After the last blooms fade, cut the plant to the ground.

Unfortunately, Jason is sold-out of ‘Cathy’s Rust’ for this year, so if you are as gaga over the color as I, you’ll have to order next spring. But should you find yourself strolling past my house at Thanksgiving, I think I could spare a piece.