Dear Old Mums
Passed down by families and friends for generations, these graceful fall plants are easy to grow and share.
Every fall, when I look out into my garden, I see my father, his cousin, and my brother—not in the flesh, but as memories sparked by a special flower that links us all. It's an old-fashioned mum, deep red with a yellow center, lanky and sprawling like a teenager on a sofa. All of us have shared this plant. As long as it survives in someone's garden, our spirits survive there too.
These mums have little in common with the assembly-line potted ones sold by big-box stores for de rigueur fall porch displays—only to be discarded a few weeks later. For one thing, heirlooms don't look like sheared round boxwoods with flowers glued on; most of them grow into loose fountains of stems 2 to 3 feet tall that sway in the breeze and combine much better with salvias, asters, grasses, and other stalwarts of fall borders. For another, they're longer lived and easier to grow than debt on a credit card.
Old-fashioned mums form spreading clumps, making them simple to share. Just sink a shovel into the midst of the clump in either late fall or spring, and separate out a piece sporting lots of roots. Stuff it in a pot, and pass it along. Every time the recipient sees it blooming in their garden, they'll think of you and your gift.
Many old mums bear the names of people or gardens that shared them. Some names are mixed up. Others get forgotten. My family's heirloom mum came with no ID, so I named it "Antares" after the giant red star in Scorpio. Should you conclude I've stolen your family's mum, you know where to find me. In the meantime, meet more old-timers, all available online at petalsfromthepast.com.
Cathy's Rust (top left)
I'd coveted this striking terra-cotta-colored mum that boasts a yellow center ever since gawking at it in a display bed at Petals from the Past nursery in Jemison, Alabama, which is owned by my friend Jason Powell. So I got a pot from him. He received his original plant from his friend Cathy Blackwell, who in turn got it from her mother. Where it ultimately originated is unknown. This very vigorous plant grows 2 to 3 feet tall.
Miss Gloria's Thanksgiving Day (top right)
Fifteen years ago, Powell heard an intriguing story while visiting his friend Jenks Farmer in Columbia, South Carolina. Jenks claimed his mother, Gloria Farmer, had a mum with large, violet-pink flowers that always bloomed for Thanksgiving. I procured this one, too, from Petals from the Past. Last November, Gloria's mum lived up to its billing in my garden, blooming, as promised, on Turkey Day. It grows 2 to 3 feet tall with evergreen foliage.
Ryan's Pink (bottom left)
The most popular old mum, this was named after Atlanta garden designer Ryan Gainey by a Georgia nursery he shared it with. But it just as well could have been named "Harriet's Pink," after Harriet Spencer, the Atlanta woman who gave it to Gainey. Of course, many gardeners claim it's really "Country Girl," while others insist it's "Clara Curtis." Forget the controversy. Just enjoy. This pale pink mum grows about 2 feet tall.
Judy's Yellow (bottom right)
Judy Moeck didn't plan to have her own flower. Powell's longtime colleague simply sought the origins of the tangerine-yellow mum her family had passed around for years. After "countless hours of exhaustive research," not a single record could be found. So "Judy's Yellow" was born. It grows 2 to 3 feet tall.
How To Grow:
LIGHT: Full sun
SOIL: Fertile, well drained
PESTS: Control insects like aphids with horticultural oil or insecticidal soap.
TO SHARE: Divide clumps in fall after blooming or in spring.
GROWING ZONES: Upper, Middle, Lower, and Coastal South