Colorful Crepe Myrtles

Summertime wouldn't be complete without a slice of watermelon and the brilliant blooms of this Southern classic.
Charlie Thigpen

We Southerners share certain memories--the smell of a freshly mowed lawn, the high-pitched cry of cicadas on sweltering days, the juicy taste of sweet watermelon, and the vision of huge crepe myrtles bent low by the weight of their blooms.

Although native to China, crepe myrtles have set deep roots in our Southern soil, becoming a part of both our landscape and our traditions. This time of year they dress up historic cities such as New Orleans, Savannah, and Charleston, South Carolina. They also grace many of our own private gardens, a sign of their enduring popularity.

And why not? These easy-to-grow trees possess many outstanding features. Sinewy and strong, crepe myrtles have gray, tan, or cinnamon-hued branches that bear glorious clouds of colorful, long-lasting blooms starting in June. In the fall, they dependably produce radiant foliage in reds, oranges, and yellows. Winter reveals their exfoliating bark, which makes their naturally sculpted trunks look like living works of art.

Crepe myrtles boast year-round appeal, but in the heat of summer they show their true colors, from red and pink to lavender, purple, and white. Widely available, they can be found at most any nursery or garden center, and this is a great time to purchase them because you can see exactly what color you're getting. Just remember, if you plant them now, give them lots of water to help them adjust to the garden and promote new root growth.

They Keep on Blooming
Unlike spring's cherry trees, with delicate flowers that may last only a week or two, crepe myrtles can bloom all summer. Light tip pruning or snipping off old blooms will encourage more flowers. Although tip pruning may be recommended, heavy cutbacks (sometimes called crepe murder) in late winter or early spring are never a good idea. Many people who don't know better cut back trees in February or March, leaving only 4- or 5-foot trunks sticking up out of the ground. This ruins the natural shape of the trees. It also causes multiple shoots to sprout from the cut-back point. Trees then grow so thick that air circulation is reduced, making the plants more susceptible to aphids, sooty mold, and powdery mildew. The numerous branches also create too heavy a load, which can cause them to split or crack during heavy rains or high winds.

 

Know a crepe myrtle's mature height before you plant it. If you don't want it to be too big, look for a low-growing selection. Crepe myrtles range in height from 2 feet to 30 feet. Trees such as 'Natchez' or 'Tuscarora' reach 25 to 30 feet in height. 'Sioux' and 'Regal Red' are medium-size selections that will grow only 12 to 15 feet tall. These medium trees are perfect for a small courtyard or patio. Breeders also market dwarf selections. Some of those, such as 'Chickasaw' and 'Pokomoke,' have been around for a while, and many new dwarf selections have been introduced in recent years. A number of trees grow less than 3 feet tall.

Crepe myrtles have many landscape uses. They can be planted together to make a large hedge or screen, or a single tree can act as a specimen to create a distinctive focal point. Some of the smaller growing selections even look great in large containers.

These trees do need a sunny site to grow full and bloom heavily. Left in the shade, they become leggy and produce few flowers. Crepe myrtles also may suffer from cold damage in cooler climates, so if you live in the Upper South, be sure to plant cold-hardy selections such as 'Acoma,' 'Centennial Spirit,' or 'Hopi.'

If you've already planted a crepe myrtle that's overgrowing its boundary, you might want to move it. These trees may be transplanted easily, and only a small root ball is needed for success. It's best to move them in late fall or winter, when they're leafless and dormant.

When you need a small tree and have a sunny spot, make a point to try a crepe myrtle. This classic plant will beat the heat and make your summer garden more colorful and memorable.

"Colorful Crepe Myrtles" is from the June 2002 issue of Southern Living.