With no regard for any laws that may exist about such behavior, I lifted the above image from Wikipedia because I have a thing for botanical prints and could not resist. I think “Unruly Gardener Writes From the City Jail” has potential, don’t you?

Lagerstroemia is apparently a member of the family Lythraceae, named for Swedish merchant Magnus von Lagerström, who kept busy supplying Linnaeus with specimens for the scientist’s taxonomical tendencies. There are many varieties with blooms of many sizes and colors; you can even plant them so they’ll flower at different times throughout the warm months.

We know them as crape myrtles here in Texas. Before I had a friend who worked at the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center back in the day, I thought they were natives; but no. They are native to the Indian subcontinent, southeast Asia, and Australia, and sort-of-well-adapted to central Texas (remember what I told you about the aphids, and don’t get me started about powdery mildew). Nicknamed “the lilac of the south,” they bloom through our punishing summers and will bloom twice if you know just when to cut them back after the first flowering.

When I was growing up in Connecticut, lilacs were held in an esteem bordering on the sacred. We waited through early spring for the first mildly scented white blossoms to emerge; and then the heavily perfumed purples. We gathered them by the armloads from vacant lots, the edge of the woods where we played, and from neighbors who gave us permission. Since May as everyone knows is Mary’s month, it was routine at St. Mary’s school to bring fresh flowers to stand in the corner by the statue of the Blessed Virgin that stood on a shelf in every classroom. By late May, we made the transition from irises and lily-of-the-valley to lilacs. And if the lilacs were purple, the classroom would be filled with a marvelous fragrance all day long.

Some of the nuns believed the scent made school children sleepy, and so forbade purple lilacs in the classroom. Such are the vagaries of a life of deprivation, that even flowers could be accused of smelling too wonderful to have around. Think: if purple lilacs actually calmed children to the point of functioning as a soporific, we could stop giving all that Adderol to kids and save it for tired old women like myself who really need it.

All this is by way of saying that “the lilac of the south” possesses no perfume at all, alas. It does, however, possess a wonderful range of colors, which make our summer streets and yards look at least a little bit alive when grasses turn yellow and other trees’ leaves fold in on themselves in desperation.

Let’s start with mine. This pink number lives in the back yard right outside our bedroom. A couple of times a year I have to get on a ladder and trim branches away from the side of the house, or it sounds like the boogeyman is trying to scratch his way in when we’re trying to fall asleep. It’s enough to make Travis leave his bed beneath the window and go sleep beside Floyd.

The green shrub at its feet is a nandina that keeps trying to break into the house. Confession: after hours of work by the two of us with shovel, pitchfork, and pick-axe, followed two utterly ineffective applications of all-natural orange-oil weed killer along the foundation, I poured a gallon of Round-Up in there. It was my first and only application of that horrible stuff, but it has kept the nandina back enough so that I can easily uproot the runners that want to eat our foundation. Floyd had to rebuild the exterior of the foundation at that corner – it was only a matter of time before I would have had leafy sprouts in my sock drawer. Obviously, although I hate to admit it, the weed killer hasn’t killed everything, not by a long shot.

A few feet away stands a crape myrtle with darker pink blossoms. When we moved in three years ago, this was a spectacular specimen almost two stories high, with a broad canopy laden with flowers. The heavy branches bent to eye-level – not a minor consideration in a fifteen-by-thirty back yard. While Travis looks very handsome covered in tiny pink flowers, I felt I had to do something or lose an eye. So I cut it back.

Starting out this post with reminiscences of Catholic school must be putting me in a mood for confession, because here’s another one: I cannot prune trees. Of. Any. Kind. By rights I should be charged with a felony if I so much as approach a tree-like object with anything looking like a lopper; and if you see a Saws-All in my hands you should summon law enforcement officials immediately. At best, I create an awkward, misshapen mess. At worst, death.

I had read plenty of sources on trimming crape myrtles. I knew all about “crape murder” and how the old-time practice of drastically cutting back these plants is unnecessary and a downright terrible thing to do. I was careful. So careful.

Not long after the trimming, I called the arborist we had used at our old house to come out and check on the enormous live oak in the front yard (fortunately, for the nonce, healthy). After badgering me about the nandinas along the fence, he came out back – who knew he would come out back? – and declared my pruning job horrible. That could be fatal, he said.

Well, I wouldn’t prune a really valuable tree, I told him. If this one goes, I’ll be glad to have more sun back here for vegetables. (This didn’t seem like a good time to tell him I can’t grow vegetables.)

Sure enough, last spring there were more dead branches on the poor thing than live ones. I asked Floyd to fire up the chain saw and take it down to about two feet tall. I always imagine I’ll have a nice level tree stump one day, and attach a tabletop to it for plants and beers and things.

No table yet. That crape myrtle came back and brought a few of its children with it. Oh, well. I’m currently in a mood to give yard space to just about anything that volunteers to grow here.

When you have a home, you learn that the smallest improvement you make can instantly become the best idea you’ve ever had. And so it was, when the fence demanded replacement a few months ago, I had the radical notion to have them add a gate to the side yard:

It’s like paradise on earth, to be able to work in the sidewalk garden or the side yard and get to the back of the house just like that! It’s a pretty darn first-world problem, to have to walk all the way around the house to fetch a shovel or the right clippers; but at my age every step I don’t have to take is a gift. Plus, a screaming lawnmower or dolly laden with compost can go right through! Life is good!

That silvery trunk belongs to a magnolia my arborist says will have to come down one day to make room for the young oaks flanking it. I don’t like to think of such a prospect, and hope I won’t be around to have to make the decision.

Just to the right of the gate is a crape myrtle with pale pink flowers:

Not far away, near that corner where I have the bench obscured by vitex and lantana, is a scrawny crape myrtle with purple flowers. I don’t see many purple ones around the ‘hood, and given the array of receipts and plant tags left behind in a fat notebook by the house’s first owner, I’ll bet it was on sale at Home Depot and the lady of the house thought it pretty.

Someone or other who used to live in this house clearly had an affection for crape myrtles; I’m not even showing you all twelve (!) of them in our tiny piece of heaven. There are two in back, squished between the cedars that rise high above our fence to obscure the ugly yard next door and blot out some traffic noise from Southwest Parkway when the wind is wrong. There’s the huge one between our house and the neighbors to our south. There is a lanky dark red on the corner of my stone patio in front; and there are a couple of dwarf varieties here and there which I will not mention because I do not believe in dwarf varieties of anything in a place as big as Texas.
And then there’s the one I dug up to make room for the patio when we took out the front porch, now residing in a giant pot by my corner bench. There: you have it: confession #3: I am a plant hoarder, unable to throw away even the ones I am throwing away. All I can say in my defense is that it’s unlikely we’ll get a reality TV show any time soon.
It’s lucky I went around the neighborhood with camera and cell phone last weekend, because this weekend it’s just too hot to carry equipment of any kind other than a water bottle. I say this knowing I’m going to do that very thing tomorrow morning because there are a few post-worthy things out there I saw on this morning’s bike ride. But first, here are some of the neighborhood lovelies. 
There are a number of white crape myrtles out there; I bike past one short little punkin’ that looks like a giant mushroom but beautiful. The one in the photo below lives on one of the neighborhood’s main drags, and stands out perfectly against the red brick house. To me, the white flowers look best on a damp early morning, when the green all around them is dark and lush. Dramatic and classy.
I love how so many of them hang over the sidewalk: shade made of flowers. As the blooms begin to wear out, the sidewalk and street are carpeted in pink.

I wanted to catch a photo of one of those crape myrtle allees, an arched walkway covered over in blossoms; but I haven’t seen one in my neighborhood and I’m too lazy to drive all over town to find one. I was chatting with a friend last week and she is fainting to plant just such an allee in front of her house; but until they are thriving, you’ll just have to trust me. And while some of my neighbors do have really pretty lines of crape myrtles serving as extremely decorative fence-lines, I was rather smitten by one neighbor’s cluster of old trees in two colors, pinks and whites against a blue sky. The space underneath was the kind of place where we would have played house when we were little, all dappled light and strewn with tiny flowers.

This next specimen caught my attention for its sheer vividness. Sharp, sharp pink leaning over the sidewalk –

and splendid in its close-up. See why we miss summer when January goes all cold and monotone?

Maybe it’s just as well that Lagerstroemia has no perfume. Imagine: all across Texas, in all its cities and towns, people would be asleep at their work, in their back yards, behind the wheels of their cars. Productivity would come to a standstill, and no one would remember to go pick up the kids. We’d spend the summer in even more of a daze than we do already, dreaming of those enormous clouds moving slowly across a deep blue sky, floating in a warm pool of oblivion, waiting out summer.

Leave a Reply