A blooming spectacle: New crepe myrtle festival invites the world to visit Natchez

Print Share on LinkedIn More

Ben Hillyer

The inaugural Natchez International Crepe Myrtle Festival is June 21-22.

The blooms won him over. A gazillion of them, bursting in color before his eyes like a daytime fireworks show on the streets of Natchez. That was nearly a year ago, as Peter Patout drove into the city for a Fourth of July weekend.

“All these masses of blooming crepe myrtles … festoons of them!” he recalls of his drive into town. The New Orleans-based historic properties realtor had been to Natchez many times before, but never at peak blooming season — a “magical” sight. Every day and every turn, he saw more. Every conversation blossomed with tantalizing details — about “crepe murder” bobbing, about crepe myrtle campaigns, about crepe myrtle archives. He was captivated.

“You just need a festival here,” he declared at Elaine Gemmell’s lake house, where a party
gathered for the Lake St. John Flotilla. Gemmell, archives keeper and an Adams County Master Gardener, had thought so for ages. “Somebody just needs to do it,” she’d said. So, with support and enthusiasm from master gardeners, the city and more, Patout founded the festival, with Gemmell and chef/author/proprietor Regina Charboneau as co-chairs.

The Natchez International Crepe Myrtle Festival is June 21-22. Its inaugural outing honors Sallie Ballard (1926-2017), whose year 2000 mission to plant 2,000 crepe myrtles in Natchez added significantly to the city’s stash.

A woman of action

Sallie Ballard, who made it her mission to plant 2,000 crepe myrtles in Natchez, was a woman of action, her daughter say.

Ballard’s daughter, Donna Maselli, was a bit skeptical of her mother’s aim for the new millennium, to make Natchez “the crepe myrtle capital of the world.”

“But my mother was not just talk. She was action,” Maselli says, raising money and overseeing hundreds of crepe myrtles around the city. Anytime a new throughway or road was built, she phoned the mayor to advise him to plant crepe myrtles. “My mother had a way of ‘advising’ that did not really invite a response except ‘Yes, Sallie.’”

She didn’t just work the phone. She worked the dirt. “When I say my mother was a gardener, I mean she did yard work,” Maselli says. “Hard stuff. Weeding, planting, mulching. Hauling, digging, transplanting. Nothing made her happier than a full day planting in the heat in her yard, with a cold beer at the end. Well into her 80s, she was doing yard work that a 20-year-old would faint doing. She could not be stopped,” planting crepe myrtles throughout the city with her trusty sidekick Rosia Lee Williams. Ballard died in April 2017 at her antebellum home, White Wings, surrounded by watermelon-colored and Natchez white crepe myrtles (the cultivar named for the
Natchez Indians) and what’s believed to be the state’s second-oldest magnolia.

G. Douglas Adams

By some accounts, there are 1,400 crepe myrtles in Natchez’s 10- to 12-block historic district.

Maselli credits her dad, Basil, for some of that crepe myrtle obsession. After his dream car, a new green Thunderbird coupe parked in front of the house, was showered in blossoms after a pop-up thunderstorm, he declared the trees had to go. “There was much gnashing of teeth, but my mother knew her battles and this was not one of them.” The trees came down. Ballard was devastated, but patient. Soon, a garage in the alley out back became available and Ballard arranged to house the Thunderbird there. “After that, she was in front of the house, digging holes and planting … crepe myrtles.”

“A woman you never forgot,” Patout describes Ballard. A lifelong Natchez resident and mother of five (songwriter/producer Glen Ballard among them), she was also a bus tour guide (showing off her city to Lady Bird Johnson, Robert Mondavi and many others), a fervent community leader and supporter, and an entrepreneur (co-founding the Cock of the Walk franchise).

“Sallie was indomitable,” says Mimi Miller, Historic Natchez Foundation executive director emeritus. Ballard cared so deeply about volunteering that each year, she’d take homemade coconut cakes to those who opened their houses for pilgrimage tours. She never missed a Great Mississippi Balloon Race, volunteering with T-shirt sales right up to age 89, when she cheered others on from her wheelchair.

“Nothing could get her down,” Miller says, recalling that freezing day when Ballard, then in her 80s, spoke at the dedication of historic plaques, revised to include African-Americans and women, and urged the crowd to leave with the motto “One Natchez.”

A blooming passion

Ballard’s mission was one of several crepe myrtle mass plantings in Natchez. Ladies of the Natchez Garden Club organized crepe myrtle plantings in residential neighborhoods in the 1940s, Gemmell says.

When (now Natchez Mayor) Darryl Grennell was Historic Natchez Foundation president,
inspired by Ballard, he raised money for plantings and added a couple hundred to the inventory.

Gemmell’s own Adams County Master Gardeners project, starting in 2011, prettied up main thoroughfares with tender loving care on established trees and planted another 150. The effort built on the Natchez Trails initiative of the Community Alliance of Natchez-Adams County that added hundreds of Natchez white crepe myrtles along the riverfront and Broadway Street. More came in a second planting by the Community Alliance along St. Catherine Street.

G. Douglas Adams

Organizers hope the Natchez International Crepe Festival will someday rival the National Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, D.C.

Gemmell counts 1,400 crepe myrtles in Natchez’s 10- to 12-block historic district. Master Gardeners treated the trees for bark scale with the help of inmate labor — “my garden club in the green and white striped pants … such nice guys.”

The city’s crepe myrtle colors range from white, pale pink and lavender to richer pinks and watermelon red, with blossoming at its peak in June, progressing from the lighter to darker shades for a riot of color that brightens city views and carpets sidewalks after a rain. They bloom all summer.

A reason to visit

Organizers see the crepe myrtle festival’s tourism potential akin to the National Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, D.C., and fall foliage tours in New England. Visitors can take in the magnificent blooms by car or foot, but several planned events, free or affordable, toast the colorful blooms and share best practices information.

The Crepe Crawl (walk), 6-9 p.m. June 21, offers a chance to walk along Natchez’s “open
container route.” Start at Natchez Architectural and Art Discoveries at 515 Main St. (also known as Crepe Myrtle Central for the weekend), and enjoy a self-guided stroll. For those 21 and older, $20 gets two wristbands for “bring a friend” fun and 2-for-1 specials at participating restaurants and live music venues.

On June 22, the Downtown Natchez Farmers Market, 100 block S. Commerce St. 8 a.m. to noon, will have crepe myrtle trees for sale along with live music, fresh produce, baked goods, arts and more. Free lectures and workshops are 9 a.m. to noon that day at the Historic Natchez Foundation, 108 South Commerce St. Speakers include master gardener Rita Tebbetts demonstrating proper care and pruning of the trees, Mississippi State University entomology expert Blake Layton Jr. in a talk on the crepe myrtle bark scale, and more.

Visitors can also tour Crepe Myrtle Grounds around the city (maps at Crepe Myrtle Central), including Natchez City Cemetery, Duncan Park (where a taste and tour at Historic Auburn Antebellum Home with gumbo and mint juleps is $20) noon to 2 p.m., book signings at Regina’s Kitchen (including Charboneau’s latest, “Natchez Style”) 2-4 p.m. and a self-guided garden tour with Bloody Mary at Monmouth Historic Inn & Gardens ($8 a person) 2-4 p.m.

Crepe myrtles have been a Natchez fixture since the early 19th century, and just as their
population has grown, so has pride in them. It’s a blooming spectacle, Patout says, “powerful enough for me to feel comfortable inviting the world to this.”

Find more festival details at visitnatchez.org.