A friend told me I should have kept my mouth shut and should not have written the letter to the editor concerning crepe myrtles. Why? … because she cannot ride down DeKalb Street without seeking the tree that is different from all others and “doesn’t want to cause a wreck.” I also received a call this morning informing me that my sleuthing missed the real reason for the Crape murder column. Tree pruning in the historic district was the cause of the column rather than my choice of the only “different” crepe myrtle on DeKalb. It is just that when I saw that tree, I journeyed not farther than the park to cement my decision. Now, I’ll just say the crepe myrtle on DeKalb just might have caused the problem had the author noticed that one first. I just hate being incorrect.
I planned this before the received telephone message and the “wreck” comment, and will not fit with these first couple paragraphs. Should the homeowners and gardeners in the historic district want to see examples of how crepe myrtles should look, please go to the University of South Carolina horseshoe and take a look at the front yard of the president’s home. There you will witness the true beauty of what the crepe myrtle can be. Of course, these trees have been under the care of experts for more than a hundred years. Their crowning glory is the decorative trunks, more beautiful in winter than summer when delicate bloom color catches ones eye. The crepe myrtle is an exfoliating tree and as it grows it pushes off its bark. Historical areas must avoid the modern, attention getting gimmicks, including odd shrubbery shapes. Oriental bonsai of a trunk-high and aggravating nature just doesn’t fit in with South Carolina history. (I can say this because I don’t know from Adam from where or whom came the travesty and I hope they don’t know me. After all, I only drove past the park and didn’t get into the historical district.)
Now for an article on crepe myrtles for the edification of those who will not do the research…
Get used to it Camden people! You are blessed with a landscape that will get more beautiful as each glorious summer comes and goes. The persons responsible for your streetscape in the past and present have done a wonderful job with the small space for roots that must get man-furnished water and nutrients. I really didn’t realize what was happening on the streets in Camden, until reading the editorial that caused me to be involved in a Crepe Myrtle Mystery. The spelling “crape” is a sense of pronunciation of the shrub though the spelling “crepe” more properly describes light, thin, silky, crinkled substances (think crepe paper or a crinkly, silky, flimsy, night-time teddy) -- something sensitive and pleasing to the eye. This is how the fresh, new crepe myrtle flower looks close up. Because crepe is the original word used to describe the flower and the original verbiage for the name, the spelling should be forever and after, crepe myrtle (although in present literature that doesn’t seem to be the case).
You might ask why I should be the one writing about crepe myrtle. Well, I have probably been interested in the shrub longer than any of you reading this story and am doing it because the Chronicle-Independent opened the door. It all started at the age of 9 -- only 75 years ago. I grew up in Eutawville about 3 miles from Eutaw Springs -- your General Green was involved at Eutaw Springs Revolutionary War battlefield. During the 1930s, I think the name of the mosquito spray was “skit” or “skat” something similar. People kept every blade of grass out of yards, swept them clean, had very little shrubbery and did anything they could around the home to discourage mosquitoes because their air conditioning was a wonderful, airy , mosquito-prone front porch -- (some rural residents didn’t even have screen wire covering windows). This is pertinent to my story because even as a boy, I wanted to take charge of my mother’s flower planting, etc., to the point that to keep a little boy “out of her hair” she gave me a little plot (about 12 x 12) which received a little shade in afternoons from a magnificent, volunteer crepe myrtle that had grown into a 16-foot shrub. I dearly loved that shrub and in summers my eye would catch those beautiful lavender-creped umbels and follow the colors all the way down to something that just might be blooming in my garden -- it might have been a weed -- if a weed had a flower that appealed to me, it was planted in my garden and became my flower. (I should write you a story about Florida betony and its lovely flowers.) In winter time, I would stand by the velvety trunks (plural because unless standardized and kept pruned back this shrub has multiple trunks.) of that tree and rub my hands over the magnificent bark to feel the smoothness. Where there was a crack or mar, I’d stick in my fingernails to check the depth of what was ending the smoothness -- little boy stuff.
One afternoon after practicing basketball in the school gym, home-going was later than usual. After the usual scolding for staying late and not coming home to help him saw firewood with a cross-cut saw for our wood-burning heater and cook stove (Depression years); my dad had me come around the kitchen to help him saw the fuel for a couple cold nights. When I saw it, I broke out into tears -- probably hysteria.
Daddy, why did you cut my tree? There it was, a carcass looking just like any old stove-wood waiting to be sawed. The nearest I can tell you how I felt when I saw that beautiful crepe myrtle on the ground is to tell you to imagine how I felt when I realized that my 70-pound dog could no longer stand on her legs and I had to physically haul her out of the house and take the seemingly long ride to the vet to put her to sleep. As it is with crepe myrtles, when you sever a root it will usually sprout a new plant (a clone of the same color as the original) and a few years later I had a (child) crepe myrtle growing which my dad didn’t touch with a saw throughout his long lifetime.
Wherever I have moved and from then on I have appreciated and grown the crepe myrtle. I even remember back when I was 19 and a Navy sailor stationed in Norfolk, Va., during the Korean conflict. I would ride the city busses for miles from my Breezy Point Naval station to uptown all the while admiring the beautiful crepe myrtles lining many city streets. Again, even in the dead of winter, the tree is a beauty. I found out later that Norfolk was known as the “City of Crepe Myrtles.” I have been there once in the last 60 years, but can only imagine that the beauty of those trees still amaze out-of-town on-lookers in summer.
Enough about me and my experiences; I want to use this opportunity to tell you about the crepe myrtle shrub hopefully to make you a fan and protector -- it’s what I have spent much of my life doing for camellia shrubs. I think growing and showing camellias has kept me energetic with an active mind continually thinking about what I can do to make my flowers bigger and better in order to beat my favorite competitors. In fact, camellias and crepe myrtle have something in common: The shrubs will grow just about anywhere but will not flower well in cold climates. Looking at the myriad of crepe myrtle colors is a summer passion. I still look for a deep, velvety purple color I once saw in a restaurant parking lot somewhere (now forgotten) around Charlotte It must have been a one-of-a-kind as I have never seen it again.
My thoughts abound, go wild, feel serene when I see beautiful art, sculpture, pieces from the minds and thoughts of my fellow people and hear music which actually soothes my soul and makes me perfectly relaxed in my easy chair. A beautiful flower will do the same for me. I personally know flowers and the shrubs upon which they grow is art from our God. When I walk outdoors and see an elegant bloom unfolding its beauty, I say, “Thank you my Lord for just letting me see this flower.
The crepe myrtle is a shrub which attains heights around 16 feet. There are exceptions and higher growth comes about usually when the shrub must compete for sunlight to overcome shade competition from its neighbors. It grows readily from seeds or cuttings and is easily propagated. As with most vegetation that receives natural cross pollination from bees, wasps and such, plants from seeds are seldom matches to color of parents. Nurseries usually specialize with particular colors and if a city decides on landscaping with a particular color or colors, these must be obtained from the same source or cloned from their parent plants. When plants of a particular crepe myrtle are desired, a sharp spade may be pushed down severing the roots around the perimeter of a large plant. The severed root sprouts a top. Root-prune the young plants one season and dig and plant in a permanent space next season. When a planting of the same color borders a property, the best way to keep size, symmetry, and uniformity of color is to transplant alpha or omega to sigma or rho (the space where a plant that has died or met its fate by a vehicle or axe and fill the void with a white. Also, in the case of crepe myrtles, the white fits in with any color and is the preferred color for front-yard landscaping or filling in when a specific color cannot be located.
One point to help understand and appreciate the crepe myrtle is that it is one of those trees with exalted status for their trunks alone. It does not quite hold the status of the esteemed white bark birch that we see in numerous scenes of snow art -- a tree that will not survive South Carolina’s on and off cold and warm winters or we would use it in our landscapes. The outer coating of the trunks and branches of the crepe myrtle is very smooth and is in the league of the eye-appealing river birch, locust, persimmon, cottonwood, and beech. To you horse lovers in Camden, you might describe the outer coating of crepe myrtles as contrasting colored shapes that remind you of a flaxen chestnut, strawberry roan, paint or palomino. If I were an artist, I could probably describe the bark a little better than what follows but to my eye a tree in my yard (each is different) shows lines and splotches with chiaroscuro contrasts featuring whitish, greenish, brownish, and, yes, garnet.
That reminds me of a crepe myrtle seedling I once grew that had mostly a garnet-colored outer coating. First inclination was to patent it and name it “Gamecock!” Alas, upon examining other crepe myrtles, I found the garnet color not to be unique.
Not to be amiss, I must address the major reason for the “Crape Murder Controversy.” Although we have agreed to disagree my personal opinion varies a little from that of Arborist Liz Gilland and (probably a majority of my fellow Master Gardeners.) After all, art, music and plant appreciation is up to each individual. One must know a plant to know how to prune. One must decide on form, shape, space allotted for plant, eye appeal in landscape and all sorts of stuff with natural growth habits a major factor. Try as you may, I don’t think you can carve up the fur of a German Shepherd to make it look like a Poodle.
Very simply, a major task of the landscaper is to find and know the growth habits of the plant needed to fill a certain space to give the “look” you want. That plant may or may not be a crepe myrtle. I would be in complete agreement with crepe myrtles in an historical, Old South setting. In my mind, the crepe myrtle is part of our heritage and should grow in all its glory around properties with spacious yards provided it is allowed to assume its vase-like shape with canopy colors filling the vases during hot summer months.
On the other hand, if I owned an architecturally significant, geometrically designed building or a gated community apartment complex with lots of brick fences, practically anything ultra-modern, I wouldn’t mind seeing barren trunks with umbrellas of foliage producing huge umbels of colorful flowers during the heat of summer. That “bonsai” look that we often see with the potted Hawaiian Ti plant is appealing to me. Nurseries grow these crepe myrtles forcing fast growing trunks for visual effects of this nature. The wonderful thing about it, severe, professional trimming for this effect has little effect on the health of the crepe myrtle plant. Crepe myrtles bloom on current year’s growth; and, thusly lend themselves to severe pruning.
Eighty-four year olds can give advice to all of you youngsters: If you are fortunate enough to enjoy a part of Camden’s history by living in the historical district:
• Do not drastically prune your crepe myrtles. Selectively prune branches interfering with other trees or interfering with your mind. When you are in doubt as to what to cut, get pruning advice from someone who knows and offers it.
• For anyone writing a column, let it be for all readers and not just culprits. Sometimes the choice of words comes back to haunt you.
• When thinking crepe myrtle for your landscape, they work best as a specimen shrub that will grow into a small tree and any “shaping” should be determined by regular growth habits rather than for trunk lines. Crepe myrtle are excellent seasonal color facing natural wood lines and borders of large properties.
• Where a landscape space needs growth control, serious, unnatural shaping, etc., do not use a crepe myrtle.
• Make Camden a crepe myrtle city. If you don’t have one, now is the time to plant. All yards need a colorful small tree.
(Richard Mims is a Lugoff resident who edits the Journal of the Atlantic Coast Camellia Society.)