Master Gardeners save iconic crape myrtles of Natchez
Story by Leah Barbour • Photos by Kevin Hudson
While Adams County native Monroe Sago has always loved the look of crape myrtles, he hasn’t always known how best to take care of them. His lack of knowledge was brought directly to his attention about 7 years ago.
Sago pruned the crape myrtles outside the Rhythm Night Club Memorial Museum, his business in downtown Natchez dedicated to telling the history of the horrific 1940 fire that killed hundreds of patrons. Once Sago finished pruning the trees, a passerby intervened.
“She told me I had murdered the trees—‘crape murder,’” he laughs. “She said I shouldn’t do it like that—cut the trees back so far. But I did it so neatly, she said that I should be a Master Gardener.
“So I learned it. And I mastered it.”
To become a Master Gardener, Sago completed 40 hours of horticultural training and 40 hours of volunteer service in the community. As part of the active Adams County group with approximately 50 members, Sago wanted to maintain the beautiful crape myrtles all over Natchez.
In 2015, crape myrtle bark scale, an insect infestation that turns crape myrtles black and reduces their blooms, was identified in Natchez. Former Extension agent David Carter, who trained and oversaw the Adams County Master Gardeners, brought Extension Entomologist Dr. Blake Layton to Natchez to educate the Master Gardeners, as well as the community at large, about how to identify bark scale and save the trees.
“The bark of the tree will look darker,” explains current agent Jason Jones, who assumed leadership of the Master Gardeners after Carter. “The insect contaminates the tree, and you can see the insects if you scrape the bark and seethe pink oozing from the dark bark. You can tell it’s not a healthy tree.”
If a crape myrtle owner identifies the bark scale on the tree, it should be treated immediately, Sago emphasizes. In fact, that’s what he’s been doing all over Natchez during the past 4 years: identifying bark scale and treating trees throughout the town.
“When Dr. Layton made the city aware that it was here, it was a huge deal,” Sago remembers. “That’s why the crape myrtle trees are saved today in Natchez. We were lucky enough to get the right chemical at the right time.”
With fellow Master Gardener Bo Cedotal, as well as Jones and Extension intern Rita Teppit, Sago led the charge identifying trees and treating them for bark scale. Treating a tree takes about an hour, and it should be treated annually.
“You have to measure around the bark of the tree to figure out how much [chemical] it needs,” Sago explains. “You go around the tree with the probe, a piece of iron that’s really heavy. I push it in the ground to make holes about half a foot deep all the way around the tree. We pour the chemical all the way around the tree. You can hear it bubbling because the roots are sucking it in.”
Together, the Adams County Master Gardeners have treated crape myrtles all over Natchez, especially in the downtown Bluff area. With more than 3,000 hours invested and more than 1,500 crape myrtles treated, Sago says he’s pleased with the progress, but he hopes to save even more of the iconic trees of Natchez.
“It takes time and patience,” he affirms. “When you leave that tree, you want it left in a way that you know it is going to survive, no matter how sick it is. Once you see it surviving, it gives you a sense that you did something no one else has done.
“It gives you a good feeling.”