THE crape myrtle is pretty shamefully ignored in gardens of Washington, and I think this must be because so many Yankees have moved in in the past century or so.
Never having known this elegant princess of the vegetable kingdom in Bangor, they never thought of planting it here. Indeed, the plethora of birches, Norway maples, spruces and other rather disagreeable relics of the Arctics, are undoubtedly explained by the fact that they all flourish in the native lands of the Adamses and Roosevelts and Eskimos.
Gardenias, regrettably, just barely do not manage our winters. They almost do. But it's all right to ignore gardenias, since only the most determined gardener can make them survive, perhaps with mats of straw against a south wall.
But crape myrtles are hardy even to the north of us, and they ought to be in any garden that cares for elegant flowers in August. Nothing else I can think of -- no other shrub of equal quality -- blooms from mid-July to mid-August with us.
The National Arboretum has developed a considerable number of new varieties, but I do not see them at nurseries or find them listed in catalogues. In time, no doubt, they will be in general commerce, and in the meantime there is nothing to quarrel at in the sorts readily available.
The commonest one is watermelon colored. Then there are two or three variations on the levender theme, and a crimson or two and a salmon sort. The handsomest, maybe, is the clear soft pink.
All crape myrtles like full sun and abide half-shade. They never flourish so well as in a brillinatly sunny garden where they get top dressings of rotted manure every other winter and some supplemental watering in dry spells of summer.
They grow very quickly to 10 feet and somewhat more slowly to 15 or 20 feet. They have no bugs, in my experience of them, and no disease either, except for a bit of mildew sometimes in early fall.
The foliage is neat, like a common privet's, but with the advantage that it turns beautiful orange and russet and deep red in the fall. Sometimes. Not always. Also it has a splendid habit of growth, making a shrub with perhaps four or six stems (it can be grown as a small tree by sawing out all but one) and these are covered with the most beautiful bark imaginable. The limbs are muscular, full of gentle swellings, and the bark is very think, quickly peeling off to leave bare stems that are well worth close observation, in their patternings of olive and buff and fawn. If the shrub were rare, we'd all break our budgets bark and habit, quite apart from the flowers.
An important feature of the plant, apart from its tufts (or football-sized panicles) of fluffy bloom is the lateness of its leafing out in the spring. The willows have been in leaf for weeks while the crape myrtles are still bare. It is only when spring is full and warm that tiny red-bronze glossy leaves appear, and at this season too the shrub is beautiful, though the gardener rarely pauses to admire these new growths at the height of May.
But often in small-town gardens there is a south wall against which one would like something relatively gorgeous but at the same time polished and handsome even when not in bloom.
The crape myrtle, leafing out so late, is an admirable choice for not blocking the south sun from windows until hot weather is here. Along with the dogwood (and very little else) the crape myrtyle has no faults.
The capital would be substantially improved if most of its dismal maples and spruces were sawed down (I excent the glorious Japanese and sugar maples and the blue spruces, which I grudgingly confess grow magnificently here, and the mere fact that I personally do not like them is neither here nor there) and replaced with oaks, if a forest tree is required, or dogwoods and crape myrtles where small trees are needed.
We have been rarely blessed this summer with superlative weather, lots of sun and good warm days. Some gardeners, indeed, have complained of what they call the "savage heat," but all steady and right-thinking Americans have loved every blessed day of it. Often I have felt myself back in my original country along the Lower Mississipi, and one can only hope the weather god is back in his proper tracks and that from now on our summers will continue according to this splendid beginning. Too often, in past summers, we have been denied the goodness to which our latitude entitles us, and our summers have been far too cool.
The crape myrtles, along with gardeners, have flourished mightily this July and August -- never have my tomatoes or hounds or self been more content -- and while it is no more than we have a right to expect, still there is so little justice nowadays that we should make some noise about it just to encourage the powers that be. The Real Ones, nor the politicians.