by Liza Roberts
photographs by Juli Leonard
Joan Matthews understands that not everyone knows what she’s talking about when she talks about Chrysanthemums. Many, she knows, envision autumn’s grocery store go-to, five bucks if you’re lucky, tidy globes the color of fall leaves. Placed in a pot beside a pumpkin on a stoop, they’re everyone’s perfectly predictable fall décor, disposable come December.
Those mums are not Matthews’ mums.
Matthews’ mums are not uniform. They’re not conveniently hued to match the season. They’re not to be found at the grocery store, or really any store at all.
Matthews’ mums are interstellar supernovas of color and shape; they are otherworldly, spidery, and often gargantuan. They are rare, they require tending, and they are disappearing. Matthews is determined to save them.
A visit to the .14-acre lot that holds her house and garden in Five Points is a lesson in the triumph of will, passion, and purpose over practicality. Her will to grow, nuture, and love mums. Her passion to share them with the world. And her gripping purpose: to save them from vanishing from the United States.
Her will: Matthews has a very small garden. But it holds more than 300 plants of 120 different types, including 80 on the roof of a chicken coop. Every day between March and October, the former English as a Second Language teacher spends as much time as she can nurturing, re-planting, and de-budding her mums so that they can reach their ultimate potential.
Her passion: She is so eager to share her love of mums and spread it, make it catch, that she will speak to any garden club that asks. She gave a lecture on mums in her garage. She enters mum competitions though she doesn’t care about winning – even disdains it as unmeaningful – just to keep the mum conversation going. She will force herself to cut a dozen of her blooms (something she hates to do), place them in wine bottles rescued from neighbors’ recycling bins, arrange them in the middle of her dining room table, and go out on the street to invite strangers in, just so they might fall in love and want to grow mums, too. That’s how it started with her, 15 years ago, when she saw an 11-inch bloom at a show. “I had never seen anything like that,” she says.
Her purpose: When Matthews learned that King’s Mums, the country’s foremost – arguably only – seller of unique mum cultivars had accidently killed off the bulk of its crop and that the population of mums in the United States was threatened, she went into overdrive. Because mums are grown not by seed but by cuttings, this was dire news. She took armfuls of her plants to Duke Gardens; she tried to give some to the J.C. Raulston Arboretum and offered to speak to its school of agriculture. She started the Central Carolina Chrysthansemum Society.
“I give away plants to anyone,” she says. “I will talk to anyone about mums. I’m not a mum expert. I’m the
advocate. The enthusiast. I grow them to show: You can do this.”
She admits that her compulsion can be difficult to explain, even to her husband, who is supportive if perhaps perplexed by her focus. For Matthews, it’s simple: “For some reason,” she says, “it has fallen into my hands to help these mums stay in existence.”