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.