Saturday, November 8, 2008

Working Day

On the way to work on Friday, Forsyth Street, the President Elect on a post planted to protect street trees from the bumpers of cars.

Below, a crape myrtle in the Liz Christie Garden, the first garden in New York created from land grabbed by green guerillas and now protected from development.

I was very surprised, and a bit miffed, when, a few weeks ago, a veteran of and recognized authority on the New York gardening scene said tentatively to me that it was possible, just possible that Lagerstroemia might be hardy here.


I sometimes suggest them as an economical alternative to Stewartia, which are lovely trees with smooth, peeling bark, mid-summer flowers and striking autumn foliage. Crape myrtles deliver the same bark, almost uncannily so; the same habit of blooming long, long after spring, and stunning fall colours. Stewartia are still special, their camellia-like flowers more elegant than crepe myrtles' frilly clusters, and I love them, but they are usually triple the cost, at least.

I first took my cue from the two old crape myrtles planted on Lafayette between Bleecker and Bond, west side of the street, in two big plastic planters, now upgraded to wood. Year in year out, quite neglected, they make it. There is also a beautiful specimen across the road from me, in Brooklyn, and there is this one in the Liz Christie garden. At least these are the ones I know personally. Granted, all at street level, and I would protect them from winter winds on rooves and avoid western exposures. But nice trees.

End of lecture.

An appointment on Friday was in the Kamchatkan wastes of the far Upper East Side, off East End Avenue. You need huskies and cross country skis to get there. There are wolves. Not the most attractive architecture, the apartment buildings, but some very good views. The East River flows thick and fast nearby, proving that it is a strait not a river, and it's good to see river traffic on it, and the trees turning on Roosevelt Island across the way.

The smokestacks belong to the Keyspan power plant in Queens on the other side of the island, helping give rise to the Asthma Alley moniker for that part of Queens.

And my journey on the subway after being transferred from the sled: music to relieve the tension of the packed 6 which slowly empties as it makes its way downtown.

Near Broadway Lafayatte, when the train was nearly empty again, on the seat opposite me a young black guy sat down in his baggy pants and baseball cap over his eyes, and slouched apathetically in teenage ostentation. Then he noticed a piece of ruled paper next to him on the otherwise empty blue seat. He glanced at it. He read it. I tried to read it but couldn't. He picked it up. He sat looking at it. He started to tear pieces off it, making it smaller and square.

Then he turned and carefully inserted it into the corner of an ad.

"Obama is God!"

Jesus wept.

I smiled.


  1. The piece of paper: fantastic story! Only in New York! Worth a newspaper article. :-)

  2. There are many crape myrtles at the BBG, but the planting of them on the south facing slope at the head of the garden tells me they worried about winter winds. A neighbor has one, no worries.

  3. I'm glad you enjoy the crape myrtle at Liz Christy garden. I planted it there about twelve years ago and the cultivar is 'Royalty'. I got confidence to plant it from the established collection at BBG. They sustain some damage in a really bad winter, but recover nicely.

    Yes, crape myrtles can be cheaper than Stewartia, but their great urban value is their tolerance for drought and high-alkaline soils. The pH at Liz Christy was above 8 the last time I checked. I no longer volunteer there, but before I left, I removed and gave away a Stewartia pseudocamellia I planted because the leaves were always chlorotic (sickly-looking) from the alkalinity in the soil. I wonder if other Stewartia species would be more adaptable.

    Similar smallish and urban-friendly trees with glorious autumn color include Pistacia chinensis, Rhus chinensis and Cotinus obovatus. You can also see these beauties at BBG, so don't let anyone tell you they won't grow well here!

  4. Beence and MIT - it was a very watchable moment :-)

    NYC Garden - I feel so silly. can't picture the BBG crape myrtles. Near the lilacs?

    Anonymous myrtle planter - how nice to hear first hand about that tree! And I did not know about their tolerance of high pH's, though I knew that stewartias prefer slightly acidic. Good point.

    I know the Cotinus and Rhus glabra, but the Pistacia is quite new to me - thanks for the suggestions.

    My next mission. Back to BBG to open my eyes and see crape myrtles.

  5. Beautiful colours here. On the trees too!

  6. Yes, the original BBG crape myrtle collection is on the hillside just north of the lilacs. They planted more about 15 years ago when they re-landscaped the water lily terrace and perennial borders.

    You can see the Pistacia along with the native Cotinus on a little grassy hill just outside the most southern of the greenhouses. It's the area where they plant woodies in the cashew family (Anacardiaceae). Mango is also a member of this family, but they have not, alas, yet taught it to survive our winters!


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