Sentinels of Summer’s End

Summer in Sydney is bookended by flowers. When the warm weather starts in November the jacaranda trees bloom in clouds of pale mauve blossoms. The jacaranda is a celebrated tree, its flowering season our equivalent of a cherry blossom festival, as the jacaranda is the subject of tributes and it is debated in what areas of the city can be found the best blooms.

My favourite flowering tree is the one that marks summer’s end. It is less celebrated than the jacaranda, but no less striking. The peak of its flowering is in the last weeks of February, these weeks with a humid, dog days feeling about them, still clinging to a summer languor despite the year advancing rapidly into March.

CM Gladesville

A grove of Crepe Myrtles in Gladesville.

These sentinels of summer’s end are the crepe myrtles, their clusters of frilly flowers daubing the streets pink. The crepe myrtle is a popular street tree, often planted along the roadside, and so when they are flowering they form a procession of pink blooms that you can follow like a trail throughout the suburbs.

Queen Street CM

Crepe Myrtles along Queen Street, Ashfield.

With their clusters of small, ruffled flowers, the crepe myrtles are a joyful tree, with all the beautiful indeterminacy of the colour pink, a colour that can be both gentle and raucous. Some are crimson, others pale, others still are white or mauve. These different colours all arise from the “Indian Summer” strain of crepe myrtles, named for their East Asian origins and their late-summer flowering season. Crepe Myrtles vary in shape and size and colour, some neatly pruned, others unruly, sending out haphazard boughs of flowers.

Unruly Myrtles

Unruly Myrtles

As I have journeyed around Sydney these past few weeks I’ve had my eye out for the crepe myrtles. Crepe-myrtle spotting is a game with constant rewards. They’re everywhere, all different colours and sizes and in different combinations, changing familiar territory into a pink landscape. I often travel around Sydney in this way, picking one detail out of the many and transforming the city, temporarily, into a place dominated by that one element.

Crepe Myrtles Randwick

Complementary colours in Randwick.

The city of the crepe myrtles is one of suburban streets and late summer gardens, with the oleanders and frangipanis trees their companion blooms. It’s a city of decorations and embellishments, iron lace and garden gates with patterns of hearts and rising suns. It’s a city in which even the most utilitarian places are surrounded by trees and flowers, belonging to everyone who cares to notice them.

myrtle and sunflower

11 Comments on “Sentinels of Summer’s End”

  1. I love crepe myrtles! Such pretty bark too. I’m very lucky to have a big, beautiful one in my bark yard. I’ll have to have you over for coffee so you can see it. It’s glorious!

  2. mccnmatt says:

    The crepe myrtles (or 100 days tree as my mother calls them ) are beautiful – I also love the pale shiny bark that’s there to enjoy all year round. Like you I love the way the city rearranges itself when the autumn leaves come along or the jacarandas or the crepe myrtles come into flower. It’s like another city with its own logic and pathways from place to place, beyond roads and railways, coming into view (My musings along these lines about in jacaranda season a while back ) interesting to think what kinds of histories and patterns the crepe myrtles might map out across the suburbs…. I wonder when they first became fashionable?

    • Vanessa Berry says:

      100 day trees is a lovely name – when I was researching this post I came across quite a lot of 1940s and 50s newspaper mentions of crepe myrtles in various gardening columns, so that was one era when they were fashionable. I can imagine that some of the suburban crepe myrtles date from that era. I do love the shifting map of flowers that comes with the seasons, I’m off to read your post now!

      • mccnmatt says:

        How interesting. I wonder why. Ah yes the 40s was an interesting time for garden fashions. I am lucky enough to have a dawn redwood in my backyard – a living fossil just like the Wollemi pine, that was rediscovered in the early 40s in a hidden valley in China. The seeds were shipped all around the world and are now found everywhere from Alaska to the tropics! I wonder about the wave of 75 year old trees around the globe. I often think about jacarandas here in Australia and speculate on the passions and fantasies that led to their mass planting. A lot of the trees in my garden that would have been planted in mid-century are American and I often think about the ideas about the American century that maybe made them seem appealing?? Wild speculation there.

        You have to wonder what will be the “signature” garden plants of this decade or so. Sadly I think it might be those bloody cordelines – small, low maintenance plants, well suited to the tiny patch of dirt left next to a McMansion, just one step up from a plastic plant! Makes me sad for the shaggy sprawling glories of jacarandas and those beautiful crepe myrtles…

      • Vanessa Berry says:

        Yes it will be cordelines or maybe those “goodbye neighbours” (Acmena Smithii) trees at the other end of the spectrum! The 40s and 50s were eras in which people were moving out to the suburbs and planting gardens on what were usually bare blocks so I imagine there was an increased interest in trees at the time – I like considering how tree planting is an act which has within in a sense of the future and hope.

  3. Marco Cuevas-Hewitt says:

    Hi Vanessa! I can’t say I’m terribly enamoured with the built environment, but jacarandas and crepe myrtles? Now you’re talking my language =) When walking around the city it’s the plants I pay attention to most… and like you, I love watching how the streetscape changes with the seasons. We have a ton of Jacarandas in Perth, but not crepe myrtles, so the latter were a lovely discovery for me in Sydney… Another standout thing about the Sydney summer for me is the sight and scent of jasmine flowers everywhere! Coming into winter, now we have the red-flowering flame trees (Erythrina genus) and orange-flowering flame vines (Pyrostegia genus) to look forward to… to warm us up just like the flames of our fireplaces. I dream of planting an arboretum one day consisting of all the most outrageous flowering trees, flowering sequentially in a circle, and each year the cycle would start again =)

  4. Ash says:

    One of my favourite posts. I have fond memories of the crepe myrtle tree in my Nan’s front yard at Bankstown. Sadly the house and the tree are no longer there. Thanks for this wonderful post. March is my favourite time of year.

  5. meganix says:

    Hi Vanessa, I’ve returned to your crepe myrtle post because I’ve been trying to explain to a friend (born on the other side of the world) how Autumn in Sydney is not just a matter of temperature. We may have had the hottest March on record, but for me Autumn really did begin towards the beginning of March or even earlier. Partly it’s an indefinable feeling experienced early in the morning, but there are describable signs as well – not only the crepe myrtles but the last burst from the cicadas, currawongs step up their carolling, late season varieties of plums in the fruit shops followed by persimmons, the marvellous colours of spent hydrangeas, and the buses fill up again with uni students. Remembered Autumn smells include the brewery on Broadway (now Central Park) and the tomato sauce factory that used to be at the top of King Street, Newtown. I wonder what else signals Sydney Autumn to you?

  6. […] the floral calendar of Sydney, after the pink of the crepe myrtles in late summer comes the velvet purple of the tibouchinas. Like the city’s most renowned […]

  7. […] Another level of detail occurs with seasonal changes – it’s late February now, so the crepe myrtles are out, with their blossoms of various pinks, and then as the cooler weather starts, the purple […]

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