In the pink at Elizabeth Farm
Amid all these old-fashioned favourites, the undoubted star of the show is the crepe myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica) – a frilly splash of lurid pink against the yellow sandstone of John and Elizabeth Macarthur’s late 18th-century homestead. Crepe myrtles are usually small trees, but this magnificent specimen may be a centenarian; it’s likely to have been planted by the Swann family, who lived at Elizabeth Farm from 1905.
Most crepe myrtles you’ll find in gardens and nurseries these days are the ‘Indian Summer’ varieties developed in the United States from the 1950s; they include the popular, white-flowered ‘Natchez’. But many of the mature crepe myrtles lining Sydney’s streets – trees planted as seedlings between the 1940s and 60s – are cultivars developed in Sydney and Brisbane by Australia’s local nursery industry.
Director of Heritage Ian Innes is a self-described crepe myrtle ‘fanatic’. He delights in spotting these older cultivars in and around the city. ‘If you look around the northern suburbs – Chatswood, Epping, Eastwood, Ermington – or out west, Parramatta and Windsor way, there is a surprising diversity of coloured forms, size and habit, and bark patterning.
‘Driving around Parramatta, Ermington and Dundas yesterday morning, it seemed there was a crepe myrtle in every second garden, making a big gaudy splash.’
The crepe myrtle at Elizabeth Farm is a particular favourite. ‘The deep carmine flowers represent what was then only a fairly limited colour range. It’s a harsh colour, not nearly as tasteful as more modern introductions, which is why I like it.’
Modern, single-trunked cultivars such as ‘Natchez’ are very often a hybrid of the Chinese crepe myrtle, L. indica, and the Japanese form, L. fauriei. Older trees, like the one at Elizabeth Farm, are more often cultivars of L. indica. If left to their own devices, they grow into big, messy, multi-stemmed shrubs. Horticultural coordinator Todd Stark says the crepe myrtles at the Field of Mars cemetery in Ryde are among the most spectacular he’s seen – and to his knowledge have never been pruned.
A colonial favourite worth reintroducing? Ian thinks so. ‘Despite the fact that it gets some mildew on the foliage in warm humid months, it is an incredibly tough little tree. Crepe myrtles will grow in light sandy soil, but they seem to actually revel in heavy clay.
‘The trees become quite beautiful in their shape and form, long after the flowers have finished. Add the flaking coloured bark and good autumn colour and you have the perfect small tree for home gardens.’
Yesterday today tomorrow
This sweetly scented shrub, a native of South America, is a staple of Australian suburban gardens – William Macarthur cultivated it at his Camden Park nursery as early as 1850. The flowers fade from brilliant purple to lilac and lastly white: yesterday, today and tomorrow, all on show at the same time.
Daylilies were one of the first Chinese plants to reach the gardens of Western Europe, by way of the Silk Route. ‘The plant bringeth forth in the morning his bud,’ John Gerard wrote in his 1597 botanical work, Herball. ‘At noone [it] is full blowne … and the same day in the evening it shuts itself.’ They were popular plants in colonial Australia too: William Macarthur listed them for sale at his Camden Park nursery.