Monday, August 3, 2009

The Crape Myrtle

Like most worthwhile things this side of cathedral and war memorials, the crape myrtle is both beautiful and unassuming. It has such a subtle effect on the landscape when not in bloom that I spent six winters in the midwest without realizing that the tree simply does not grow there at all. I only noted its conspicuous absence among the retarded summertime---a word used generously if there ever were one---progress of the plains' flora.

I won't bother with the scientific names and that sort of thing. Not because such information isn't useful or worthwhile, but because I would simply be cutting and pasting, which is mildly disingenuous. Anyone can look these things up as well as I can. I will note, however, that the shrub is not native to the Americas, but comes from Asia. Unlike other Old World imports prevalent in the South (see "kudzu"), crape myrtle behaves well and as expected. Also unlike other notable Southern flora, it is highly multi-functional. Keep it trimmed and it makes a pleasant bush. Let it grow up and prune lower branches and it becomes a delightful small tree. Spare it all attention from the loppers and it expand in every direction like a large botanical globe.

Despite its foreign heritage, the crape myrtle is a proper Southern shrub, largely because it is never in a hurry. It knows quite well that irises, day lilies, and magnolias will regale the neighborhood through the spring and early summer. So it comes later, to add color to July and August, when it faces less competition. And like any good friend, its arrival is not only timely but called for. Come late July and August the lawn considers dying off, asphalt stays sticky through the night, and a neighboring state just might try to resolve its carpetbagger-induced water shortage by attempting to annex part of your local river. But while the birch trees wilt in the heat, the crape myrtle puts forth an effusion of color. Together with the choices watermelons, now available, the crape myrtle gently reminds us to enjoy every moment of summer in spite of heat, humidity, and mosquito.

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