A Brief History of the Crepe Myrtle

Many of our best-loved plants first entered the South in Charleston. Here’s the fascinating story of the azalea got through the region's garden gateway and to your backyard.
Steve Bender

How many times have Southerners wished they could garden in England, where everything grows well? It’s satisfying to know, then, that one of the South’s most iconic plants wound up here because it hates the British climate.

The vaunted crepe myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica) arrived in England from its native China in 1759. It impressed very few people, though, because it refused to bloom. England just wasn’t hot enough. However, the American South was. So when plant explorer and botanist to King Louis XVI André Michaux introduced this tree into Charleston around 1786, it celebrated like an innocent prisoner released from jail.

Audacious spikes of pink, purple, white, and red flowers crown its sculptural branches for months in summer. In fall, leaves turn a brilliant red or orange, and its peeling bark brings winter interest. Crepe myrtles are found in many shapes and sizes, but their arching branches make them a mainstay for framing many a courtyard. The tree loves heat and humidity, tolerates drought, and grows quickly. Unlike the azalea, camellia, and gardenia, which pine for acid soil, crepe myrtle flourishes just about everywhere. No wonder it ranks as the South’s most popular (and coveted) ornamental tree.