By Marice Richter
DALLAS, Texas (Reuters) - What started out as a simple token gift from a teenage boy to his girl has morphed into a tradition of gargantuan proportions that, again, proves everything is bigger in Texas.
It's the homecoming mum, and it has come a long way since parents of today's teens were in high school.
Back then, it was a real chrysanthemum flower given by a boy to his date, similar to a corsage given for a prom.
"There were a few ribbons on them, but it was basically a flower you pinned to your blouse," recalled suburban Houston mother Lauren DeLorimier, who went to school in the 1970s. "Somewhere between the 1970s and the 1990s, that all changed."
Today, they are mammoth, over-the-top splays of silk chrysanthemums festooned with flowing ribbons, plush animals and an array of colorful trinkets that have spawned competition among girls to see whose is the biggest, and therefore, best.
Homecoming season kicked off this weekend for high schools across the South -- and these bountiful blooms, which weigh more than a household pet and often reach the floor, show no signs of becoming shrinking violets.
Technology has made it possible for mums to be outfitted with colorful LED lights and connections for iPods or CD players, adding splash with audio and visual capabilities.
With so many features, a mum can cost up to $500. Not surprisingly, savvy entrepreneurs, mainly women, have taken advantage of the opportunities, spawning a multimillion-dollar industry of cottage mum-makers, supply retailers, and manufacturers of ribbons, trinkets and other mum necessities.
DeLorimier, who saw all this coming when her daughters were in high school about 10 years ago, started making custom mums out of her home before opening a shop of her own.
The standard cardboard backing that supports the mum was inadequate for the increasingly hefty job. So with the help of her husband, an engineer, she created and manufactured a sturdier polyurethane base, now a staple online and in her 12-year-old, seasonal retail store.
"You need something strong to support a mum that weighs 20 to 30 pounds," she said. "It is definitely my best seller."
Despite the sagging economy, teens and their families are still willing to spend lavishly on homecoming, for party clothes, fancy restaurants, tickets, a limo, and the mammoth mums.
And though not every teen can afford to spend hundreds, they still find ways to observe the custom.
At some high schools, a do-it-yourself mum costing from $20 to $50 is more standard than a professional custom creation.
Custom mum-maker Charity Drabik of Fort Worth is trying to put a new spin on the do-it-yourself mum by offering mum parties similar to Tupperware parties.
"I think this is a good way to make a mum at a lower cost and have fun in the process," she said.
L&M Wholesale and Manufacturing, based in the small North Texas town of Glen Rose, produces imprinted ribbon and other supplies and sells them to Texas grocery and drug stores, craft shops, florists, custom mum makers and booster clubs.
The tradition of the mum involves an exchange between a boy and girl who go to homecoming together. The boy presents a girl with a mum that she wears attached to a cord around her neck.
The girl presents her date with a mum attached to an elastic garter that he wears on the upper part of one arm.
The homecoming mum is distinctive in Texas, where the over-the-top mum is widely considered to have blossomed first. But high schools in Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana have adopted the tradition as well.
"I've had orders from as far away as military bases in Germany," Braswell said. "It seems like wherever someone from Texas goes, they try to take the mum tradition with them."
And non-natives, it seems, are eager to embrace it. Dallas-area resident Theresa Hagerman, who grew up in Green Bay, Wisconsin, made her first mum two years ago for her son's date, and then branched out into her own line.
"When I was growing up, the homecoming tradition was a parade with floats representing different school organizations," she said.
"That isn't done so much anymore, at least around here. To me, the mums replace the floats and celebrate the kids and what they are all about."
Sidney Heath, the girlfriend of Hagerman's oldest son, James, recently received the crown jewel of Hagerman's mums. A front and back mum sandwiches her body and is attached to a dog harness for strength and comfort.
"I absolutely love it," she said before a homecoming game in Southlake, Texas, on Friday. "I wanted it be big, and it is really big. It may be the biggest of any this year."
Ceclia Valudos, who has been making custom mums in North Texas for 14 years, said the mums are cherished keepsakes the girls keep for years.
Having recently been laid-off, she is considering going into the mum business and marketing beyond close friends.
"I love sparkle and bling," she said. "I want my mums to be seen as works of art."
(Editing by Karen Brooks and Jerry Norton)