Our Southern Crepe Myrtle

Glory of Summer

We bought her in Spring 1987 from the hardware store, a landmark in town with dark old floors that should have creaked but didn’t and dark walls with wooden cubbies that held all kinds of delicious hardware and wide counters that held crazy-quilts of boxes with seeds and tubers for spring planting.

She was a hopeful little tiger in a two-gallon pot with pretty, com-hither watermelon blooms, and she cost five dollars. Probably she and her sisters had seeded in from a big ol’ tree in somebody’s yard and a green-thumb had dug and tended them and thought maybe there were a few dollars to be had by putting them up for sale.

Here she is about fifteen years ago, nodding to rudbeckia, now gone, victims of an increasingly wetter environment

They’re so cheap, why not get five, Bob said. But I only wanted three, to give some importance to the long path leading to our front door.

I bought five, why not? They were so cheap. The other two became grace notes in the garden.

We never paid much attention to them. After all, they lived and bloomed those first years, when everything else we planted in clay soup bowls whimpered or died.

A doe feels at home in her shade

As they grew, we got out the loppers and pruned low branches that nudged us as we passed by. We never got around to “crepe murdering” our crepe myrtles, that indiscriminate lopping of limbs, trading healthy limbs for the prospect of more blooms that was almost a mantra in those days.

Rain and wind that bow heavy blossoms do tempt one to take action. Patience pays off after a few dry days

We weren’t interested in doing all that work, and we certainly weren’t going to pay to have our trees topped, lopped or chopped, or whatever else chain-saw happy crews were a-hankering.

Occasionally sooty mold blackened leaves. It was probably caused by honeydew, poop raining down from aphids that were sucking tender new growth high up in the tree. Mold spores landed on the sticky stuff until the leaves looked like they’d been used to clean a Mary Poppins chimney.

When we happened to notice it, we said That looks awful. Probably we should do something about it. Then we made a point not to look at it. The old leaves fell in the fall. One year a rainy summer kept the new leaves washed clean. We never found any aphids.

We kept our eyes on the shaggy raspberry carpet that surrounded us instead

So we enjoyed our crepe myrtles because they bloomed reliably and they asked very little from us.

The happiest crepe myrtles grow along sunny roadsides or sunny railroad tracks or in sunny fields or sunny gardens. They stand proud with fulsome crowns and crowded blooms. They seek no protection from the elements. They need no emergency water. Their roots are deep and careless. They have no floppy limbs that need pruning. What would stress any other plant simply spurs crepe myrtles on to brighter bloom.

We rather like the chumminess of our crepe myrtle and carpet roses that today rejoice in the moisture that did the rudbeckia in

(Though we should add that the majesty of sun-swept roadside crepe myrtles is often diminished by unruly ruffs of sprouts at the base that should be cut away but are usually not because no one seems to be around to do it.)

Our crepe myrtles aren’t in blazing sun. They grow in a woodland garden in soil that is much too rich and moist, so their growth is open and casual and sometimes spindly.

(Imagine what joy they would give the chain-saw boys.)

But they don’t have unruly ruffs. Instead, they prefer to put their energy into root shoots that pop up in unlikely places.

One of our crepe myrtles, the middle one along the path was destined to become a sprawling centerpiece on our front lawn that captured our imaginations when she bloomed. Year by year she stretched out and up, shaped modestly with a nip here or there.

Smooth bark, raspberry blooms, and graceful limbs

Her stature reminded us of a commanding old oak in a forest, but she was so much more lissome. After she “molted” her outer shell, her bark would run smooth as silk along curvaceous trunks and her crown flounced summer-bold painted cheeks.

Some years storms and wind brought Spanish moss in from crusty old bald cypress that patrolled the Sound.

Spanish moss, suspended, grasping a limb by an unseen thread

Ironically, these fragile pewter threads that barely clung to her limbs give her a patina of age, even permanence. Maybe she echoes our memories of draped old trees we’d seen on rambles through southern states.

Some years the Spanish moss would blow away and we would hunt for cast-off remnants and try to repair the image, but our human touch had little magic.

No matter. This summer in particular, our crepe myrtle, along with her neighbors in town and country, reached truly giddy heights of Southern Glory.

As she stands today, solo

And as part of the garden

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7 Responses to Our Southern Crepe Myrtle

  1. lisalebduska says:

    I love how you brought Myrtle to life. I feel we should make a space for her at the dinner table.

  2. Linda says:

    Crepe myrtle trunks intrigue me. Makes me wish I was an artist. Oh wait….I KNOW one. ..and she has myrtles too! 😀

  3. tonytomeo says:

    Oh, it makes me cringe. I know that they are appreciated where they are native, and I do happen to like them in the right situation. The problem is that I worked briefly in the landscape industry. The so-called ‘landscapers’ knew only three trees, London plane (sycamore), Japanese maple and crape myrtle. (I really do not consider Japanese maple to be a tree.) They were used for EVERYTHING. Japanese maples do not even do well here, but they are a fad that we capitalized on. Anyway, crape myrtles were very often planted as shade trees in huge lawns, even though they do not get big here. Sycmores were commonly planted into tight situation. Anyway, crape myrtles are one of the trees that often show up where something else would have been a better option. It is good to see that some get a good home. I intend to plant more at work (where so-called ‘gardeners’ can not get to them), just because they are they right size, and fit in nicely with a backdrop of redwood foliage. The autumn color is excellent, even in our mild winters.

    • Somehow, in your “chapparal” I don’t see crepe myrtles, but here they are hypnotic in summer, though they are often misshapen, not always by shears but sometimes by their environs.Why some do so well while others gnarl up on emaciated trunks is a matter for the botanists, I guess.

      • tonytomeo says:

        ‘Chaparral’ is the climate here. Summers are long and warm, and winters are mild with only a bit of rain. However, there are not many things that will not do well here if irrigated. Plants that prefer humidity are not happy here. Neither are those that do not tolerate frost. There are a few plants that want more chill than they get here. Otherwise, we grow quite a bit. I just need to be aware that or aridity (lack of humidity) is a problem for many plants that I like. People think that the warmth is a problem when they see plants get roasted. However, it really does not get very hot here. Things just get roasted because of the dry air.

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