Wednesday, August 3, 2011



The hotter the weather,
The richer they flower.

In summer’s heat,
Others wilt and die;
They flower.
Delight the eye;
Refresh the spirit.

In winter’s cold,
Twisted, naked branches,
Silhouettes against leaden sky,    
Nature’s sculptures,
Delight the eye,
Restore the soul.

Delicate blossoms scattered in grass;
Brilliant pastels upon bare earth,
Flowers floating on dark waters.

Peeling bark, silver and cinnamon.
Beneath, wood so smooth,
Like climbing glass rods,
Upward toward Autumnal skies.  

All hail
The Southern lilac,
The slippery monkey tree --
The Crape myrtle.

The hotter the weather,
The richer they flower.

People and Crape Myrtles -- The only joyous sight in this hot, dry summer are the flowering crape myrtles.  They are spectacularly beautiful this year, and remind me of the summers of my youth.  So many of my beloved relatives, now long gone, planted and tended crape myrtles.  In my childhood, I believed the crape myrtle was named for my Great-Aunt, Myrtle Adams, whose home was surrounded by these glorious trees. 

At my Heard Grandparents' farm, the long drive from the road to the house was flanked by rows of crape myrtles, that flowered in a rich red-purple. They were the sight that first greeted our eyes when we arrived, caught up in the magical excitement of summer vacation at -- “The Farm.”  Many of these survive still, grown to exaggerated heights, and overrun by competing trees, but flowering still; outliving by over half a century the man who planted them, James Addison Heard. 

One majestic, dark pink specimen grew in my Grandmother Jackson’s side yard, a tower of brilliant color to contemplate while rocking in the shade of her front porch.  I was told that the origin of this particular tree was my great-great grandfather, Stephen Pugh Jackson. 

It is strange what is remembered about a man long after he was gone.  We know only snippets of fact about Stephen Pugh Jackson, and most of these have been gleaned by forty years of diligent research.  He was born in Alabama and orphaned at a young age. He came to Louisiana with his maternal uncle, and built a home in Winn Parish.  As an older man he fought in the Civil War, enlisting only after the war came to Louisiana.  The one surviving first-hand description of him comes from a great niece, who said he was “a handsome man, tall, fleshy, fair-skinned, with blonde hair.” One other fact she rmembered: Stephen loved crape myrtles.  It seems he planted them everywhere he went, and especially on the grounds of his home and the homes of his children and friends.  I never see a crape myrtle without thinking of him.

Playing with Crape Myrtle – In my childhood, a simpler time, the crape myrtle was not only a thing of beauty, it provided infinite materials for play.  We conducted funerals for dead animals (there were always some around) placing the pastel blossoms in brilliant blue snuff bottles to decorate the graves.  We performed the magic trick of making crape myrtles bloom in our fingers by squeezing the unopened buds as we watched the flowers emerge.  We used the hard seed berries as weapons in battles.  But most intriguing of all was the shedding bark (no longer a characteristic of many hybrid varieties).  The bark, silver on the top side and cinnamon on the underside, could be used to make a variety of play things.  We made little boats that floated in the creek or pond or even in the old wash tub.  In the form of airplanes and gliders, the almost weightless material would fly lightly (if erratically) across great distances.  The little bark-rolls were scrolls on which we wrote and exchanged secret messages.  And of course the Crape myrtle offered the ultimate climbing challenge.  Even squirrels had trouble with the smooth trunks. 

In Japan, I learned that the Japanese name for the crape myrtle is literally translated as “slippery monkey tree.”  The name is a word-play, evoking imagery of the difficulties in climbing these slick-trunked trees.  My childhood memories allowed me to understand and appreciate both the name and the image.  I also learned that the Japanese value the Crape Myrtle as highly for the shapes and forms of its bare winter branches as for the beauty of its summer blooms.  I had always loved the twisted shapes of the old crape myrtles, but never knew this was an appreciated art form.  Unfortunately, hybridization and modern pruning approaches have almost totally obliterated the simple glory of the winter crape myrtle.

Botanical Considerations – In their book Heirloom Gardening in the South, William C. Welch and Greg Grant trace the history of this Asiatic import, and provide an overiew of its cultivation and hybridization.  In gardening circles, the crape myrtle is gaining new heights of popularity, and becoming a feature in arboretums everywhere.  Extensive plantings like those along the Crape Myrtle Trails of McKinney are being developed.  Interestingly, after years of “improvements” through hybridization, botanists are now seeking specimens of the older, original forms of this wonderful tree.  The old farms and houses where the big old crape myrtles still thrive have a precious treasure in the DNA of these hardy survivors.  
For more information see: 

[i] I have used the common (dictionary) spelling with two words.  Botanists like Welch and Grant often use a single word, Crape Myrtle. 

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