When Clay Mathews started tending to his late grandmother's Elephant Ear plants to keep her memory alive, he did not expect them to grow to be nearly twice his height in what he now interprets as a sign she's still with him in spirit.

His grandmother, Maxine Smith, was born in Akron, Alabama, although she lived in Tuscaloosa for the majority of her life.

"She was a genuinely good person," Mathews said. "A pure heart, she didn't meet strangers... She always worked outside with plants her whole life, just as a hobby."

Although both his mother and grandmother were avid gardeners, he didn't seriously pick up the practice himself until almost seven years ago.

Mathews said he could remember countless Sundays as a boy at his grandmother's house for brunch. While he played somewhere nearby, he would often watch his grandmother and mother strolling through the yard, stopping at each plant to discuss how they were growing. He said she cultivated most any plant, whether indoors or outdoors, including ornamentals, perennials and many different annuals.

Smith died in the fall of 2019, which left Mathews and his mother the responsibility of selling her house. He told the Thread that he decided to dig up a few of her plants to ensure the fruits of countless years of labor could not literally and figuratively wither away.

He dug up some baby Elephant Ear plants, which Smith had grown to about 4 feet tall, and 2 feet long at their largest. Although these specific plants were not necessarily her favorites, he loved the way they looked and thought they would be a good visual reminder of her.

He planted the Elephant Ears in the ground in spring of 2020, when they were level with the ground. By the winter, they had sprouted up to about half their current size. In the past year, they've grown beyond what he thought was possible.

Matthews makes his own soil, which he believes is the key to growing good plants. His recipe only comes down to three ingredients: MiracleGro, a large can of coffee grounds, and Osmocote fertilizer. He uses his grandmother's tools to till the soil. The plants only need watering once a day, and new soil every ten days.

The plants come in two variations: a purple stalk, with smaller leaves about 2-3 feet long, and a variety with green stalks with what Mathews described as "ridiculously large foliage."

"I had no idea this would happen. I think this is way bigger than they're supposed to get," he laughed. "It's taken over the backyard quite a bit."

Mathews said several friends with gardening experience have told him they've never seen Elephant Ears grow as big as his. He said the sheer size of the plants must be something like a sign, that who she was and her impact on others will continue to flourish for years to come.

"I think it's very important to be connected to the ground," he said. "There's lots of spiritual lessons to having good soil, and it's very rewarding growing something that's significant."

Mathews has three kids of his own, ages 16, 12 and 11. He said they all love to come outside and help him tend to the plants and the yard. He said that one of the core lessons he's learned in his time gardening is patience, and respecting the process. He hopes that lesson passes down to his kids as well.

He also said that if any readers would be interested in growing their own Elephant Ears, he would be happy to share what he's grown so far.

"I have people say 'you know, I love these plants but I don't know if I can take care of them,'" Mathews said. "But I would love to give some of these little ones away. In a way, that's me sharing my story, and keeping that memory alive."

READ ON: See the States Where People Live the Longest

Stacker used data from the 2020 County Health Rankings to rank every state's average life expectancy from lowest to highest. The 2020 County Health Rankings values were calculated using mortality counts from the 2016-2018 National Center for Health Statistics. The U.S. Census 2019 American Community Survey and America's Health Rankings Senior Report 2019 data were also used to provide demographics on the senior population of each state and the state's rank on senior health care, respectively.

Read on to learn the average life expectancy in each state.

LOOK: 20 tips to help your houseplants survive the winter

Top Stories From The Tuscaloosa Thread (9/20-9/24)


More From Tuscaloosa Thread