Summer Scorchers Don’t Trouble This Old-Fashioned Beauty

The lilac Crepe myrtles at Rouse Hill House and Farm

The large lilac Crepe myrtle leaves a colourful shadow on the gravel path, Rouse Hill House hides in the background. Photo © James Horan for Sydney Living Museums

Crepe Myrtles (Lagerstroemia indica) flaunt their crayon-pastel coloured flowers from Christmas until the end of February and revel in hot summer weather. Their flowering season peaks in late January, sometimes with a second flush of bloom a few weeks later. No amount of summer heat seems to faze these tough little trees, so long as there is some soil moisture.

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.

image showing the multiple trunks and interesting bark patterns on the crepe myrtles at Rouse Hill House and farm

One of the Crepe Myrtle's striking features is quite often its trunk. Here we see multiple trunks each shedding bark, leaving a mottled effect of different colours and textures.

Photo Helder Esteves © Sydney Living Museums

Crepe Myrtles at Rouse Hill House and Farm in full Autumn colour

Even in autumn at Rouse Hill Crepe myrtles provide a good show as their leaves begin to change colour and drop.

Photo Scott Hill © Sydney Living Museums

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.

The pink glow of Crepe myrtles at Rouse Hill House and Farm's Overseers cottage.

The carmine pink Crepe myrtles in full bloom besides the Overseers Cottage at Rouse Hill House and Farm.

Photo Scott Hill © Sydney Living Museums

Close up image of the pink Crepe myrtles at Rouse Hill House and Farm

Up close the robust showy blooms are quite amazing, with all their different shapes and colours.

Photo Scott Hill © Sydney Living Museums

About the author

Ian Innes

Director Heritage & Collections

Having worked on the conservation and sustainable management of historic gardens and parks in the UK, Europe and Australia – including long stints at Sydney's Royal Botanic Gardens and Centennial Parklands – Ian has now taken on the challenge of helping chart the future direction of Sydney Living Museums at a pivotal moment in its history.