Summer Scorchers Don’t Trouble This Old-Fashioned Beauty
They grow happily in almost any soil type, but appear to especially revel in clay and large mature specimens can be seen in many streets and older gardens in western Sydney. These are ‘never-say-die’, small ornamental flowering trees that develop a beautiful domed crown of foliage smothered for many weeks during summer in spectacular clusters (called panicles) of crinkled flowers. With age the multi-stemmed trees develop highly decorative bark with cinnamon, red, orange and brown markings and striations.
SLM’s first record of Crepe Myrtles in Australian gardens is 1836, mentioned in Alexander Macleay’s notebook for Elizabeth Bay when he received plants from China. Crepe Myrtles are native to a wide geographic range in East Asia. The Macarthurs were listing Crepe Myrtles for sale in their Camden Park Nursery Catalogues from 1843, with Thomas Shepherd and William Guilfoyle also listing them from the 1850s onwards.
Most of the old trees seen in gardens now are the product of extensive plant breeding and improvements carried out in Brisbane towards the end of the 19th century. This was an early and successful example of horticultural development of cultivated garden plants to meet local growing conditions. E.A. Matthews commenced controlled crosses of preferred forms in the early 1860s. His hybrid plants were later used by Samuel Eaves at Breakfast Creek from the 1860s for back-crossing to Lagerstroemia indica. Using seedling selection and vegetative propagation of improved forms he was able to develop larger flowers in a wider range of colours than the standard carmine pink. Eaves’s plants were later sold in Sydney with cultivar names such as Eaves’s Pink, Eaves’s Dwarf Blue and Eavesii.
Eaves’ and Matthews’ plants were widely marketed in Sydney from about 1905 by the Fergusons nursery family and from the 1940s by Walter Hazelwood & Sons. Hazelwood strongly promoted Eaves’s cultivars, which probably accounts for their widespread planting in Sydney suburban gardens.
The pretty lilac-coloured Crepe Myrtles in the front garden at Rouse Hill were probably planted in the 1950s or 60s when Crepe Myrtles were at the peak of their post-war popularity. At the old Caretaker’s Cottage at the back of the property is a spectacular carmine-pink flowered form currently putting on a dazzling show.