Friday, July 20, 2007

The Bougainvillea of the Upper South

A long time ago, decades ago, well back into the last century, mom took a bus trip down to the pottery factories near Williamsburg, Virginia. It wasn’t pottery she was clutching when she got home: it was a small potted crepe myrtle. And it had a name, too: watermelon pink.

Now fast forward nearly fifty years. It’s late July and we’re sitting out on the deck. We’re sitting under a thirty-foot wide pink cloud of vibrant, fragrant flowers. If some gene splicer of the future decides to insert some tree genes into garden phlox, he might get something as nice as a crepe myrtle. Does it really have any competition for consideration as the best flowering tree for summer? The flower colors are summer colors, party colors. And they are produced so freely that they give the same effect as bougainvillea.

The name “watermelon pink” is not an official crepe myrtle name. In the past, “watermelon pink” has been used for the cultivar officially named ‘Watermelon Red’. That cultivar is an older cultivar and is described as having large, fluffy panicles of watermelon red color: sounds like our plant! See this link for more:

Crepe myrtle is one of those plants which doesn’t have a down season: there is something of interest about it all year. Of course there are the summer flowers. Our plant also has spectacular fall foliage color: the fall foliage display is every bit as good as the flower display. When the leaves are in full color, they reflect a warm red-orange glow into the house.
Once the leaves fall, there is the bark and branch display. The mottled bark is beautiful when seen close up, and the growth habit of the tree is itself handsome and clean. It’s one of those trees which makes a good winter appearance.

If I had a place in the country, I would have a crepe myrtle garden. Modern cultivars come in sizes which could be stepped in a mass planting: small three-footers in the front and so on up to the really big thirty-footers. The color range is still narrow, but it’s also better than ever. There are four basic colors: white, red, pink and a sort of grayed grape-juice purple. But that simple description of the colors hardly does them justice: some of the reds and pinks in particular are wonderfully vibrant.

Have you ever noticed that many plants, even those with a comparatively wide color range, have colors which are peculiar to themselves? We can describe colors simply as red or pink, but most of us realize that the red or pink of, for instance, the genus Salvia is different from the reds and pinks in, for instance, daylilies. And sometimes when we see colors which seem particularly well matched, it’s because the plants in question are related. I see that every year in my garden when the crepe myrtle blooms: nearby there are two lythrum cultivars. Most people would not say that the lythrum are the same color as the crepe myrtle, but there is a sort of family resemblance. And crepe myrtle and lythrum are members of the same family, the Lythraceae.

At the beginning of this piece I described the flowers as fragrant. Very few books mention this, and very few of my gardening friends seem to be aware of it. But our plant is definitely fragrant, and I’ve come to look forward as much to the fragrance of the flowers as to their color.

1 comment:

Claude Seymour said...

My elderly Mother says that, as a child, the railroad that runs down the length, of the Eastern Shore, of Virginia, planted Crepe Myrtle along their right of way for miles, and miles. She said that the Summer display of flowers was spectacular, and it instilled, in her, a love of Crepe Myrtle, that's there to this day.