Jean Allsopp, Joseph De Sciose
Bowing from weighty blooms, their sinewy branches seem to reach down to embrace us. Crepe myrtles welcome summer in the South. They line our roadways, fill our public landscapes, and adorn our yards with white, pink, purple, lavender, and red flowers. Tiny petals, resembling crumpled tissue paper, bunch together to form clouds of color. Spent blooms drift to the ground like delicate confetti. They're so popular because they require little yet give so much.
These trees do more than bloom their heads off each summer. Many have outstanding fall color. Depending on the selection, their leaves turn red, yellow, or orange. If pruned correctly, their limbs and trunks become living sculptures. Winter strips them of their foliage, revealing beautiful cinnamon- to tan-colored, exfoliating bark. They're perfect for all seasons, so plant them where they can be seen and appreciated.
"Crepe murder" is a crime that occurs each January and February when landscape crews and homeowners brutally top these trees, ruining their naturally graceful forms. Over time, the cut back trees grow gnarly knuckles that become an eyesore. When planted in the proper place, a crepe myrtle should need minimal pruning. Remove any suckers (small shoots growing from the base of the tree) or cross branching (where limbs rub against one another). Occasional shaping may be required. To do this, you will need sharp pruners or loppers. Telescoping pole pruners can come in handy for higher branches.
Placement Is Important
These classic trees are so versatile. Plant them in groups to produce large sweeps of color, or use one as a single specimen. Crepe myrtles are elegant enough for a formal setting yet rugged enough to be used in natural areas.
They need lots of light to bloom profusely, preferring six to eight hours of bright sunshine. Give them less, and they'll grow leggy and produce few, if any, flowers. They look great surrounding entries, patios, and walkways, but remember that the long blooming period can get a little messy with the old flowers constantly falling. Using these trees may mean more cleaning, but that's a small price to pay for two to three months of carefree blooms.
When choosing your tree, find out how big it will grow. Selections such as 'Centennial' and 'Chickasaw' stay more shrublike, standing only 3 to 5 feet tall. 'Acoma' and 'Zuni' are considered small trees, reaching 5 to 10 feet in height. 'Sioux,' 'Tuskegee,' and 'Yuma' are medium growers at 10 to 20 feet. Large growers, such as 'Natchez,' 'Tuscarora,' and 'Dynamite,' should be planted in locations where they can reach their maximum height of 20 to 30 feet. Size will vary according to soil type and the amount of moisture and fertilizer your tree receives.
Making More Flowers
You can increase your crepe myrtles' bloom time by removing seedpods. Immediately after the trees shed their flowers, small hard seed capsules will appear. Remove these clusters of seeds, and trees will begin to produce more flowers quickly.
"Crepe Myrtles" is from the July 2006 issue of Southern Living.