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Clara Curtis, country girls and deja vu

Last week I had a rush of deja vu when I saw the first flush of a special pink autumn flower that came to me through three generations of family gardeners. 

Granny Wilma was a simple gardener who tended a single round flower bed surrounded with striped monkey grass, accessorized with a concrete chicken. And, truth be known, Granny really didn’t give a toss about the fancy flower varieties grown across town by her horticulturist mother-in-law Pearl (my great-grandmother), except for one special chrysanthemum that caught her fancy.

What Granny always called “country girls mum” is actually Clara Curtis, a special hybrid cultivar of a unique form of chrysanthemum known botanically as Chrysanthemum x rubellum. Not so important to most gardeners.

But most mums, including florist and cushion types which for over a thousand years have been formally celebrated in their cooler native Japan, rarely live for very long because they get crown, root, leaf and flower diseases in our heavy rains and summer humidity. Yet this heirloom grew well for Granny with no care whatsoever; I doubt she ever even watered it.

Every year the slow-spreading, tight clumps of light green leaves came back a little larger, no matter how cold and wet the winter or summer humidity, and by fall the loosely-branching knee-high stems started flopping over under their own weight, slouching several feet in every direction. 

And around State Fair time the dozens of buds on each plant began opening into big, flat lavender-pink daisies with yellow centers and occasional butterflies.

This is the same irresistibly cheery mum you are probably seeing right now around town and in country gardens, when other flowers are starting to fade. Its sprawling habit looks kinda messy to some folks, but by simply pinching the new growth back a little in midsummer you can keep it compact and bushy with more flowers in the fall.

And it all but shares itself, spreading like a floral wildfire from gardener to gardener because its thick clumps are so easy to divide; every gardener worth a pinch of salt who grows it would be proud to dig up a little for anyone who asks. 

Thing is, while I’m sheepish about raving over great garden choices that are not generally available for sale locally, I did find nine different kinds of this exceptionally hardy perennial in a garden center over in central Alabama named Petals from the Past. Varying from big and flat to double daisy shapes or small button-like pom-poms, their colors range from white to pink, yellow, rust and burgundy.

And because in my garden they’ve been just as hardy as the more commonly-grown Clara Curtis, this summer I put rooted cuttings into the capable hands of commercial plant propagators here in Mississippi, hoping to get them into retail garden centers soon.

Coolest thing to me is that when pink ones flower, they take me back to my early garden adventures when I was either following my great grandmother Pearl around her big yard and listening to her mutter about her lesser-talented daughter-in-law, or helping Granny weed her simple flower bed while she shrugged off Pearl’s imperious horticultural pride.

I learned interesting attitudes from them both, and inherited great plants which conjure lovely garden memories when they flower.

But the one I most prize this time of year is the hardy garden mum they both cherished, called “country girls” by one and Clara Curtis by the other.

If you don’t have it, just look around town. Knock on the door. Smile, and take it from there. Later, share it on down the line.

Felder Rushing is a Mississippi author, columnist, and host of the “Gestalt Gardener” on MPB Think Radio. Email gardening questions to rushingfelder@yahoo.com.