Talk of the Town - A streetcar named Diazinon August 05 2004

Hey, Myrrr-tle!

Call it an hommage to Brando. Theater in the cul-de sac. The summer stock production of Tennessee Williams.

A suburban Stanley Kowalski bursts out his front door one night. Backlit by the electric eye of an automatic garage door opener, he stands on the front lawn.

To yell at a beautiful, fragrant shrub.


Lights go on in nearby houses.


Neighbors peer from darkened windows.


It could come to this. My crape myrtle is making me crazy. If I find anything else eating it, anything not an essential, integral part of said bush, they'll have to clap me into a rest home for deranged gardeners.

Botanists know it as "Lagerstroemia indica, a shrub of the loosestrife family." Myrtle Loosestrife. A country singer. Civilians know crape myrtle as a pink, purple or white-flowered ornamental plant, decorating traffic medians outside every nail-and-mail mall in the late Confederate States of America.

The people who built my house put a crape myrtle in the front yard. Because myrtles are cheap and attractive. Mine certainly looks splendid right now. Its long, graceful boughs are heavy with delicate, snowy blossoms. Its dulcet scent fills the air. I think I'm in love.

But Lagerstroemia has a price. It is an irresistible free lunch counter for every struggling horticulturist's hard-shelled nemesis, Popillia japonica, the Japanese beetle. These voracious, metallic green-and-brown buggers perform two activities with great gusto. The first is eating. The second requires two Japanese beetles.

To head off this Bugapallooza party, my neighbors put out "Beetle Bags." These traps contain a strong sex lure — probably a Japanese beetle resembling Marlene Dietrich who sings, "See What the Beetles in the Back Room Will Have."

The Beetle Bag is the dopiest invention since Chia Pets. Thousands of beetles devouring some other yard are now receiving a chemical message that whispers, "For a good time, visit Slattery's subdivision."

There are so many beetles waiting to get bagged that a long line stretches all the way to — that's right — my crape myrtle. En route to the erotic house of doom, nothing beats a last meal of Lagerstroemia. At the height of beetle season, right about now, its leaves look like a police chalk outline of a murdered crape myrtle. All the chlorophyll is gone.

On my side of the battlefield, I have become acquainted with every insecticide not outlawed by the Geneva Convention: Diazinon, Sevin, Orthenex. I would prefer something with a no-nonsense name, say, "Land O' Dead Bugs."

As toxic brewmeister, I pump up the sprayer and wade into the enemy. Beginner's note: In doing this, check which way the wind is blowing. A drenching mist of bug poison should not be confused with Jean Nate after-bath lotion.

Even as I rain death upon them (and me — there was a stiff breeze from the west last weekend), the beetles remain fixated on the myrtle — and on each other. Only after a decent dousing do they clatter to the ground. After a shell count, I go into the house. Next day, the crape myrtle is covered in beetles again.

I think these beetles have seen The Sting. They pretend to die and wait for me to leave. Then the Paul Newman beetle pays off the other beetles, and they fly on to the next con job.

If this seems the product of an addled mind, please remember: I've been spritzing myself with a lot of insecticide.

On top of all this, there's an ongoing feud among gardeners about the annual pruning of crape myrtles. Fussier horticulturists, promoters of the "specimen" quality myrtle, believe one should cut back the plant's woody growth cautiously. (That could be the subject line in a spam e-mail: "woody growth cautiously." Those damn spammers are producing some of the best poetry in America.)

Others wade into their myrtles with a vengeance to chop off multiple linear yardage, committing what's called "crape murder" by the cognoscenti. Let me tell you something, you couldn't kill a crape myrtle if you fired an arsenic-tipped silver bullet into its root system, followed up by an air strike. The species may be more annoying than a used car ad on the radio, but it is indestructible.

This story does have a happy ending. The Japanese beetles on my crape myrtle will eventually make room for the aphids, which nibble on the myrtle until early fall. Then some weird fungus blackens all the leaves, until Lagerstroemia could pass for the floral piece at an Addams family wedding.

Come autumn, the crape myrtle sheds its remaining foliage. For six months it is a barren bundle of sticks, without any sign of leaves, beetles, aphids or fungus. No spraying, pruning or watering to be done. Nothing.

Nature at its finest.


Glen Slattery (suburbanitae anxietosa) has his habitat in Alpharetta.