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An American blooms - and blushes - abroad

By Julie Mautner / November 1, 2000



All of a sudden, the stores were filled with mums. Every market, every roadside stand, every huge supermarche parking lot - overflowing with mums. Fat, healthy, brilliant mums, just 35 francs per pot. It was late October, and my little front yard was calling out for color.

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Having left New York (one bedroom, Upper West Side) for Provence, France, just four months before, I was ecstatic about having a house. A real house, with shutters, a tile roof, and wooden beams. I now had colorful neighbors who rapped at my gate, bringing bowls of homegrown grapes. For the first time in my life, I had a garden.

So I called the family's guru of greenery, my dad in Wisconsin, to talk about mums. Though not a mum fan himself, Dad got behind my plan in a big way. "If that's what the stores are selling," he said, "then it's a good plant for the season. They're cheap. Put a bunch in and see how they do."

Just to be sure, I called my friend Carol, another American here in St. Remy. Was this the right time to plant mums? Would they make it through the winter? How deep should I plant them, how long would they bloom, how much water did they need?

Off we went to the garden center, and after much deliberation - such beautiful colors, such variety! - Carol and I settled on three rosy pinks and three brilliant whites.

Into the ground they went. My neighbors smiled as they strolled past and I basked in their approval. I felt French.

The next day, my friend Philippe stood in my yard and stared, stunned. I'd grown accustomed to his teasing about my American-in-France faux pas, but for the life of me, I couldn't figure out what was so funny about mums.

"Did you notice that the stores had mums for just three days?" he asked, "and that they disappeared as quickly as they'd arrived?" I confirmed that I had found that odd, and that I was thrilled to have slithered through that narrow window of horticultural opportunity just in the nick of time.

"Yesterday was Toussaint," he explained. "It's like your Memorial Day."

Mums, it seems, are the traditional flower for graves. They'd all made their way from the supermarket shelves to the cemeteries around St. Remy. Save for the six in my garden, of course.

"You might as well hang out a sign," giggled Philippe. "Americans Live Here."

Neverless, my mums thrived. Then the famous mistral blew down from the mountains and caught St. Remy in its grip. My mums were buried under a mountain of branches and crunchy, golden leaves. Then it snowed, and I left the country for a time, and that was pretty much the end of the mums.

When I returned in spring, I planted lavender, rosemary, and other things more conducive to the climate and the culture. Now my garden looks just like everyone else's. I blend.

But today is Toussaint, and the stores are full of mums.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society