In the short rows: Area has had long love affair with crepe myrtles

Published 6:44 pm Tuesday, August 3, 2021

By John Edwards

Are they crepe myrtles or crape myrtles? For those of us who grew up in the shade of Southeastern Virginia’s most abundant flowering tree, they are definitely crepe myrtles.

It’s a Southern thing. I’m told the crepe myrtle is spelled thusly because the delicate flowers it produces are the texture and delicacy of crepe paper, and since crepe paper became popular in the 1890s, about the same time Victorian gardeners fell in love with the crepe myrtle, that seems to make sense. Whether the origin is accurate or not, the spelling stuck.

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

It is, I might add, one of the South’s more innocent little quirks, much like our region’s numerous dialects. Neither they nor the spelling of crepe myrtle do harm to anyone or anything, so may they live long and in good health.

The view from our kitchen window actually stimulated the subject of crepe myrtles because I’m convinced there haven’t been many summers in which they have bloomed more magnificently. A trip through Smithfield’s Historic District during the past couple of weeks would reinforce that belief for anyone who cares. The bloom’s about ended now, and the myrtles are making a mess as dying petals fall en masse. It’s a price of summer beauty.

Smithfield’s love affair with the crepe myrtle dates to the steamboat era, that period in which business in this post-war small town flourished and ever-grander homes were built to prove the prosperity. Yards were often landscaped in the Victorian model of formality and generously adorned with crepe myrtles, as were the streets.

Crepe myrtles were imported, first from China to Great Britain, where they shivered in the cold, refusing to bloom — and who could blame them. They were then transported to this country, where they found the climate of the South far more to their liking. Here they could grow into sculpted adult trees 30 to 40 feet tall and could burst into flower for weeks on end during the heat of summer.

Their foliage adds much to the color of fall, and in winter, their gnarled, twisted trunks are an artistic delight.

Even here, though, they have their climatological limits. Tidewater Virginia generally marks their northern comfort zone. Further north, the myrtles have historically been killed back in winter and are thus more shrub-like than tree-like.

And it can happen even here, as we learned to our dismay back in the 1980s. An extended period of unseasonably warm temperatures in December 1984 confused the nearly century-old crepe myrtles all across the region, including the more majestic of the species in Smithfield. They filled with sap, thinking it was spring.

Then, Mother Nature tried to get back into rhythm all at once. A massive cold front sent the mercury plummeting one day in January 1985, with a daytime high temperature of 13 and a low of minus-3 degrees. As one old country boy was wont to say at such times, the mercury fell so fast it bent the nail from which the thermometer hung.

It was a shock, but other than our scramble to adjust, we didn’t think much of it at the time. Come spring, though, property owners throughout Southeast Virginia noticed that their crepe myrtles weren’t putting out leaves. A close examination revealed the cause: The trunks of the oldest and largest specimens had split open. Arborists quickly concluded that the trees had frozen solid during the cold snap and the swollen, frozen sap had split the trees.

People tried pruning here and there, but to no avail. In the end, the only cure was to cut down the large, now dead trees and allow them to regenerate from their roosts, which is the way they reproduce.

Remarkably, within a couple of decades, the region’s myrtle stock had pretty much recovered.

Isle of Wight County, at the prodding of the late activist Grace Keen, even started a tree-planting program, in which crepe myrtles were planted as each crop of kindergartners began their schooling. It was a wonderfully optimistic thing to do.

Mrs. Keen prodded the county further, pushing to have myrtles planted along Benn’s Church, Brewer’s Neck and Carrollton Boulevard.

So, enjoy the splendor of the crepe myrtle year-round. They’ve become as much a part of life here as peanuts and ham.

John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is