The Lilac of the South


Describing Lagerstroemia species starts with what to call them in English, whether crepe myrtle or crape myrtle. Both spellings are correct and have their adherents, and even a botanical pedant would have no basis for sneering at either preference. It is a multi-stemmed small tree originally from southern and southeastern Asia, but to stop there is to ignore the enormous variety of size, flower color, and shape of this plant that has become so ubiquitous in the southern United States that it has become known as the Lilac of the South.


The hardiness zones where crepe myrtle takes over from the common lilac, Syringa vulgaris, are 6 and 7, or roughly a horizontal line through the country’s mid-section. Besides differences in cold hardiness, there are differences in size and shape, with lilac being more of a large, rounded shrub, while crepe myrtle ranges from a small shrub to a medium-sized tree and is generally vase-shaped. Lilac flowers in spring and its flowers are always fragrant; crepe myrtle flowers in summer and, depending on variety, its flowers may or may not be fragrant. Some crepe myrtle varieties, like the white flowered “Natchez”, have exfoliating bark that adds to their winter interest. Lilac is not known for any particular winter interest. Differences aside, each plant holds a favored place, North or South, that marks them out as special and at the same time as necessities in every garden.


Crepe myrtle tree at Univ. of VA IMG 4278
Crepe myrtle trees on the grounds of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia; photo by Billy Hathorn.

Red Myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica)
Crepe myrtle flowers, showing their crinkled appearance; photo by Flickr user Hafiz Issadeen.

What a shame then that every late winter crepe myrtles throughout the South are subjected to topping by “professionals” on landscaping crews and, like the practice of volcano mulching also carried out by “professionals”, homeowners then feel encouraged to mimic the skulduggery of the “professionals” in their own yards. Topping crepe myrtles this way is known as “crepe murder”, and it is not a good or wise practice.

People can of course do what they like to their own crepe myrtles. They should not, however, continue to be able to get away with spouting bogus reasons for murdering their innocent, flowering friends. If they wanted to keep its size in check, they could have planted a shorter variety to suit the location in the beginning, rather than subject the poor plant they did choose to violence year after year. Don’t let them try to claim the high ground by saying they are pollarding, either, because 99% of these knuckle-draggers couldn’t identify a proper pollard if it descended out of the trees and bit them on the buttocks. No, they are doing it strictly from a deep-seated monkey see, monkey do limbic reflex that is not subject to conscious control. And giving the reason of promoting flowering is also bogus, though because four to six months elapse between butchering and flowering, and the American attention span is very short, almost no one thinks to disprove this claim. To honor the memory and teachings of Dr. Alex Shigo, the Father of Modern Arboriculture, the Lilac of the South deserves better.
― Izzy

Winter interest created by the branch architecture of a well-pruned, or at least unmolested, crepe myrtle; photo by Berean Hunter.


I’ll Have the General Tso’s Chicken

Davidia involucrata inflorescence foliage 01
Dove Tree flowers and foliage; photo by Myrabella.
January 28 is the Chinese New Year, which this time is the Year of the Rooster. The Chinese celebrations include an acknowledgement of America’s current influence on their culture, and in reply the Supreme Leader no doubt will wish “Good Luck” to all our Chinese friends, perhaps with a tweet or a cluck. Moving from the ridiculous to the sublime, we look back on Ernest Henry “Chinese” Wilson (1876-1930) and his accomplishments in bringing hundreds of Chinese plant varieties to Westerners in the early years of the Twentieth Century.


“Chinese” Wilson was English by birth, and he started out on his plant collecting in China on behalf of the English firm of James Veitch & Sons, who primarily sent him to retrieve the Dove Tree, Davidia involucrata. Wilson made numerous trips to China, Japan, and other Eastern, African, and Latin American locales over the first twenty years of the Twentieth Century, eventually collecting plants on behalf of the Arnold Arboretum in Boston. In 1930, he and his wife died in an automobile accident in Worcester, outside of Boston.
E H Wilson
Ernest Henry Wilson
Weiße Königs-Lilie (Lilium regale)
Regal Lily; photo by Pimpinellus.


Wilson sent back to the West a staggering number of plant species, many of which, like Camellia, Magnolia, Azalea, and Crepe Myrtle, while not entirely unknown here before his collection efforts, have become so common since he gathered their multiple varieties that Westerners could be forgiven for thinking they have always been here. Wilson himself was most proud of his discovery in 1907 of the Regal Lily, Lilium regale, on an expedition to the Min River valley in western Sichuan Province, where he paid the high cost of having his right leg broken in two places in a rock slide. He made it out of the wilds safely in three days and recovered, but ever after he walked with a limp.


This New Year of the Rooster it does us good to remember a good man, “Chinese” Wilson, and his positive contributions to the Western world borne of his expeditions to China and the Far East. It’s better still to think of how the Chinese reservoir of plant diversity has enriched our own gardens. And it’s best of all to realize in these difficult times that the influence of Wilson’s good work will over the long run outweigh the tribulations visited upon us by one petulant, puffed-up rooster of a man. The General Tso’s Chicken is good; let’s enjoy that and leave aside for now it’s American variant, Orange Chicken.
― Izzy