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From chinaberries to crape myrtles: Trees play important role in Natchez

Three hundred years of Natchez history during this tricentennial celebration would not be complete without considering ornamental and edible plants so appreciated then … and popular now.

This year, on behalf of Rosecraft Garden Club, the oldest in Natchez (established in 1929), I’ll write about the plants that have contributed to the Natchez scenery and quality of life.

Trees are an appropriate beginning, for it is trees that have played, and still do play, an important role here. They provide shade from the hot sun, food and building material. A French explorer, D’Iberville, described the Natchez in 1700 as a land of plains and prairies, little hills and groves of oak trees.

After England gained control of this region, it became part of British West Florida and gradually, population increased. Philip Pittman wrote, “Natchez is the finest and most fertile part of West Florida … beautifully varied by hills and fine meadows, separated by small copses, the trees of which are mostly walnut and oak.”

By the early 1800s, a major change in the city’s landscape occurred because of this region’s soil, a wind-blown silt known as loess. Prone to erosion, this affected the city’s streets so badly that city officials decided to level city streets rather than follow the hilly terrain described by early travelers. This affected streets and buildings alike. Around this time, city officials began planting chinaberry trees (Melia azedarach), popularly called Pride of China.

Introduced to America in the late 1700s in South Carolina, this deciduous native of China and northern India grows quickly to shade trees 30-50 feet tall. Clusters of fragrant, lilac flowers in spring mature into clusters of hard little yellow fruits. Planted along the bluff, along with locust trees, chinaberries became such a popular landscape tree that the city of Natchez operated a nursery for growing them.

In 1833, a travel writer, James Stuart, described Natchez as one of the “most beautiful town in the United States.” Describing chinaberry trees, he wrote that the growth of these trees is so rapid that in a few years they completely embower a village and give a delightful freshness to the landscape.

Many streets and private dwellings were shaded by chinaberry trees. Main Street was lined with them until the late 19th century when they were removed to make way for power poles and street paving. Their popularity waned as they became an invasive nuisance. Birds spread their seeds. Children played with the hard yellow berries, also spreading them.

Rosecraft member Polly Scott recalls fond memories of shooting their popcorn-like kernels through popguns. Another Rosecraft member has a less favorable impression. Virginia Salmon regards them as nuisance trees which were removed from her historic Hillside plantation. Only a few remain in her forested areas where they can provide food and habitat for birds without bothering humans.

In Natchez, several are Under-the-Hill beneath the bluff and scattered throughout town, remnants of their past popularity.

Other favored ornamental shade trees were sycamore, laurel, locust, white bay and the indigenous Magnolia grandiflora. Over the centuries, crape myrtle trees grew in popularity. Technically, they are multi-trunked shrubs trained to grow as single trunk trees. Native to Asia, they naturalized in the South with its hot summers and relatively mild winters. Popular because of their long flowering period summer through fall, they are useful in private landscapes and public spaces because they don’t outgrow their planting sites. Depending on variety, they range from three to 30-feet in height. Colors include pink, red, rose, purple and white. In fall, foliage color enlivens landscapes with hues of orange, yellow, red and maroon.

The renowned nurseryman, Thomas Affleck, kept detailed journals of the plants he offered for sale. In the years 1850-56, sales of crape myrtles were the most numerous, 153, followed by live oak, 107, magnolia grandiflora, 76, and weeping willows, 48.

Crape myrtles are not demanding plants because they grow well in most types of soil. They need supplemental watering for the first year after planting, and then usually grow well with rainfall. They don’t need a lot of fertilizer. Too much and they produce leaves instead of flowers. One past problem has been their susceptibility to mildew, especially in damp weather.

But the U.S. Department of Agriculture has spent decades developing mildew-resistant varieties. These 29 new varieties were named for Native American tribes, like “Natchez,” the white-flowered variety named for the tribe rather than the city of Natchez. Other new varieties that can be seen throughout this region include “Sioux,” “Choctaw” and “Potomac.”

 

Karen Dardick is a member of Rosecraft and an enthusiastic gardener whose landscape includes several crape myrtle compact shrubs and colorful trees.