In Praise of Crape Myrtles

By Andrea Laine, EMGV

An English gardener friend of mine tells an amusing story about how she visited Durham three times before deciding to move here. She visited once in the spring and twice in the fall. Each time the weather was marvelous – abundant sunshine, blue clear sky, low humidity and moderate temperatures. Naturally, she waited until the school year had ended to pack up her family and make the big move. Well, by then it was July. She was greeted with sticky, hot and humid days punctuated, if lucky, by torrential downpours in the afternoon. She wondered what she had gotten herself into!

Being a transplant myself, I understand the feeling. But there IS something really wonderful about the Triangle area in July and August – the spectacularly ornamental crape myrtle. The common crape myrtle (Lagerstromia indica) hails from Asia and blooms profusely here in midsummer. Beautiful specimens (in tree or shrub form) can be sighted everywhere: from highway medians, manicured corporate plazas, and shopping center parking lots, to botanical gardens and residential properties in the cities as well as rural communities.

perfect crape
This graceful beauty is actually two trees planted side by side.

Many Varieties and Seasonal Interest
The crape myrtle thrives in full sun and well-drained soil. It will grow in partial shade but expect fewer blooms. The flower panicles are often several inches long and there are many color varieties from which to choose including white, pink, lavender, red and fuschia.

When the flowers fade, the show is far from over. The foliage takes its place on stage with appropriate autumn colors. And a peeling, mottled cinnamon-brown bark of many varieties stands out in winter.

autumn crape
My crape myrtle in early autumn.
Lagerstroemia-indica--Martin-LaBar--cc-by-nc-2-0
Lagerstroemia indica bark detail Photo by Martin LaBar, CC BY-NC-2.0

The most endearing attribute of the crape myrtle, in my opinion, is that there are varieties to fit every sized situation.

  • ‘Cherry Dazzle’ (red flower) and ‘Pocomoke’ (pink flower) have a mounding growth habit and are just three to four feet and two to three feet tall, respectively, at maturity. This makes either one suitable for a container.
  • ‘Catawba’ (purple flower) is an upright small tree growing up to 15 feet tall.
  • ‘Natchez’ (white flower) is also an upright form growing to 25 or 30 feet tall.

crape small  crape corner

 

These are just a few examples. There are dozens of varieties of crape myrtle thanks to a breeding program conducted in the 1950s at the U.S. National Arboretum that combined the trunk attributes and powdery mildew resistance of the Japanese crape myrtle with the variety of flower colors of the common crape myrtle.

My wooded landscape is blessed with three crape myrtles planted by former owners.
However, I really get a kick out of seeing many others all over Durham and Chapel Hill when I am out and about in the summertime.

General information:
https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/all/lagerstroemia-indica/

Crape myrtle problem solver:
http://www.clemson.edu/extension/horticulture/landscape_ornamentals/crapemyrtle/problem_solver/index.html

About pruning:
https://durhammastergardeners.wordpress.com/2013/02/03/crape-myrtles/

 

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