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Green Acre #158: Crape Myrtles, the ‘Shoulda’ Tree

Take that, dogwoods and cherry trees! The crape myrtle’s blooms last all through the summer and into the fall. / Photo by Stephanie Cavanaugh.

‘WHAT’S THAT?’ said my love. He was looking at a beautiful tree covered with ruffled clusters of ballet-slipper-pink flowers. 

We were walking to Sunday brunch at the deliberately funky Tex-Mex Santa Rosa Taqueria, two blocks from the ground of the US Capitol and a few thousand miles away in atmosphere. 

“A crape myrtle,” I said. Did I mention that the thermometer in the shade outside Citibank read 99 degrees? 

We walked a few steps more. “What’s that?” said my love of a tree, blazing scarlet.

 “A crape myrtle,” I said. “They come in reds and pinks and purples. The colors are different, but the  flowers are much the same.”  

“What’s that?” he said, a block on.

I forgot. “They also come in white.” 

As usual, this is like talking to a 3-year-old.

It is high season in Washington DC for crape myrtles; some are small bushes, others towering, with a mighty spread. This is one of those shoulda plants, as in: I shoulda planted one. What else is so reliably colorful from summer through fall, as dramatic, as nearly carefree as this tree?

Instead, we planted a pink dogwood out front, which straggled along for many years, leaves curling and drying to a brown crunch in August. When we gave up and cut it down; a red-leaf maple went in its stead. Yawn. Pretty. 

Out back there was also a pestilent apricot, just a twig of a thing that became in a few short years a nightmare with rotting fruit too high to reach and a foul mush of slugs underfoot. Beware fruit trees in small gardens.

When the apricot died it was replaced, stupidly, with a Kwanzan cherry, which now has a 16-foot spread and nearly reaches the roof, submerging the garden in shade throughout the summer, and all for a week or so of flowers in spring. Fabulous blooms, but really. 

And why? Because the crape myrtle, for all its flowering through summer and fall just sits there in spring. La di la di da. The very last tree to leaf out. The tulips bob about in the faint breeze, the forsythia strikes gold, and the daffs wave this way and that. Meanwhile, the crape myrtles sit there buck naked. 

I have no patience with this: I want my spring to come in a tidal wave of scent and color. Winter’s over, dammit. 

We walk on. The flowers in yards and tree boxes are looking a little ratty, a little limp, a little fried. Any rose worthy of the name is done. The zinnias have beetle holes. 

The crape myrtles? They’re grand. I shoulda, really. Maybe when the cherry breathes its last.

We’re on our way back home, a distance of about a mile. The temperature per Citibank is now 101 in the shade, don’t even think about the sidewalks, my sandals are melting. Just two blocks left and I’ve stopped perspiring, my stomach is roiling, “I think I’m close to a heat stroke,” I tell my beloved.

“Go into the laundromat, and I’ll get the car,” he says. So I do. There’s no air conditioning in the laundromat, if you can imagine. The dryers are spinning ker-clunk, ker-clunk. 

I sit outside on a plastic chair and wait. And wait. And wait. What the HELL COULD HE BE DOING? The car is two blocks away.  

A full 15 minutes later he pulls up. Next to him on the seat is a cold towel. A bucket of ice. A bottle of water. 

He really is a very sweet man, even though this morning he bored my brain like a beetle and then almost killed me. 

—Stephanie Cavanaugh

LittleBird “Stephanie Gardens” shoulda planted a crape myrtle. Next time.



6 thoughts on “Green Acre #158: Crape Myrtles, the ‘Shoulda’ Tree

  1. Careful… Pittsburgh gets a little cold for crepe myrtle.

    1. Janet Kelly says:

      Aw, shucks. I think there’s a variety out there that might work. Will research.

  2. Powdery mildew! That’s a disease that has my name all over it. Would you believe I’m happy to hear this? Makes me feel so much better about not having one. I’d be sobbing too.

  3. Evelyn Kurhajetz says:

    I’d recommend you review the National Arboretum website. They have a cheat sheet on Crepe Myrtles so you can see their size, shape (some are columnar and others vase like) and color. It’s wise to consider your house color when choosing your Crepe Myrtle color. (For example, a red house might look best with a white one, but a white or grey house could use a color. Also, consider what blooming shrubs you might have. A red brick house, with a coral Crepe Myrtle and pink hydrangeas may be a little overwhelming but a red brick house, with a white Crepe Myrtle and blue hydrangeas would be appealing.

  4. Ann says:

    Beloved is a keeper! I love crape myrtles too as they’re a rare spot of color after nearly everything else has faded. Mine kept developing powdery mildew on the leaves due to high humidity and finally had to give up on it, sob.

  5. kelly janet says:

    Our maple tree hit the dust and we’re going to plant a crape myrtle in its place. Not as tall and won’t shed leaves on our roof. Hmm. What color to choose?

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