The Crape Myrtle: A True Southern Classic



Crape Myrtle photo courtesy of jetheriot on Flickr

Crape Myrtle photo courtesy of jetheriot on Flickr

Crape myrtles are the crown jewels of the Southern landscape, providing pleasure in every season. One of the last trees to produce leaves in spring, they assure us that warmer days are about to arrive. Their bright colors in summer give vibrancy and life to city streets and residential neighborhoods alike. Fall turns their leaves to bright gold, orange, rich red and burgundy. Winter bares their polished limbs mottled grey and silver or brown and cinnamon.

The common crape myrtle, Lagerstroemia indica, has been a part of the South since 1747. Records from Mount Vernon show the ship George Barclay landed in Philadelphia in 1799 and brought crape myrtle seeds to the George Washington plantation. Hundred year old trees can be found in gardens throughout the South. In the 1950’s the Japanese crape myrtle, Lagerstroemia faurei, was brought to the United States and formed the basis of an intensive breeding program at the National Arboretum in Washington D.C. to combine its beautiful bark and excellent cold hardiness with the superior flower colors available in the common crape myrtle. Over a period of about 30 years the program, directed by Dr. Don Egolf, created hybrids which gave birth to the exciting varieties of trees available today. Now, there is a crape myrtle for almost every landscape need, from stately lawn tree to hanging basket.

The Crape Myrtle Tree is Really a Shrub!

crepe myrtle 2At heart, a crape myrtle is a shrub. It has multiple shoots arising from the ground to form a dense mass. This tendency can be easily seen in old trees in abandoned sites around the South. Crapes, especially the larger ones, look best when a few trunks, usually three to five, are selected and trained with lower shoots and branches removed to reveal the beauty of the wood. Single trunk specimens are also available.

Crape myrtles are generally divided into four categories – Dwarf (1-4’), Semi-dwarf (5-12’), Intermediate (13-20’), and tree size (21’ and up). Within those categories they can be weeping, umbrella shaped, rounded, vase shaped or upright. Their flower colors range from dark purples and wine reds to purples, reds, lavenders, pinks, pale pinks to white. The bark exfoliates, that is it sheds in strips to reveal polished wood in shades of grey and brown. Fall leaf color ranges from gold to burgundy, with intermediate colors often all appearing on the same tree.

Selecting & Planting Crape Myrtles

After color, the most important consideration when choosing a crape myrtle is its ultimate size and shape. It is better to choose a tree that will not outgrow its space than to struggle with one that would much rather be much larger. With so many choices, it should be easy to find a tree the size, shape and color you need.

Crape myrtles can be purchased in many sizes, from small affordable 3 gallon trees to ball and burlaped behemoths. Fewer varieties are available in large specimen trees, but those have been found by growers to be the most durable and dependable.

shutterstock_3357122Crape myrtles can tolerate a wide range of soil conditions, but they prefer neutral to slightly acid soil. They will struggle in shallow rocky soil without supplemental water. When planting, dig a hole no deeper than the root ball and about twice as wide. Current wisdom suggests using the native soil to fill your hole, but if the soil is very sandy an addition of compost would be welcome. In heavy clay soils a soil conditioner of aged ground up pine bark helps drainage and allows air to reach the roots.

Crape myrtles are best planted in full sun. They love light and heat, making them an excellent choice for new landscapes where there is little or no shade. Spring is an optimal time to plant, but they can be planted in summer as well, allowing one to purchase the tree while it is in bloom in order to choose the most desired color. Crapes are very drought tolerant when established, but they will require plenty of water their first season.

Crape Myrtle Pruning

Few topics arouse as much passion in the plant community as how to prune a crape myrtle. The widely used practice of pollarding, in which branches are cut back to the main trunks, has been dubbed “Crape Murder” by Steve Bender, Southern Living magazine’s senior garden writer. Michael Dirr, one of the leading lights of Southern horticulture calls it “the brutal massacre of crape myrtles.”  In truth, once the basic form of the tree has been established, Crapemyrtles require little pruning. Interior branches can be removed to allow light and air circulation. Branches should be trimmed back to stems no larger than the little finger. New young shoots can be removed from the base or rubbed off the trunk while they are soft. Pruning is best done in early spring right before new growth emerges. February and March are ideal times to prune for shape. Seed heads can be removed after the initial flowers are finished to encourage a second bloom. Trees should never be pruned in the fall. Studies have shown that pruning between the months of August and December can compromise cold hardiness and lead to winter damage.

Crape myrtles are one of the easiest and most rewarding plants that can be grown in the South. They are colorful, love the heat and the sun, durable and long lived, much like the folks who live here. Bet you can’t plant just one.

Some of Our Favorite Cultivars

Purple Cow
This small to mid-sized, upright crape myrtle features beautiful purple blooms!  Deep purple flowers contrast against green foliage. Grows 6-10 ft tall.

Dynamite
Large with fire-red flowers.  Hardy and resistant to disease, insects & mildew.  Grows to 15-20 feet tall and 10-15 feet wide.

Siren Red Whit VII
A beautiful selection, oxblood red blooms.  Foliage emerges crimson and turns to green as it ages.  Mid size growing 6-12 feet tall.

Midnight Magic
Reliable purple to maroon foliage with dark pink flowers.  Round & compact growing 4-6 ft tall and wide.  Disease resistant.  Blooms Early July – Sept.

Raspberry Sundae Whit I
Lovely fragrant raspberry-red blooms with a touch of white contrast against green leaves that turn red-orange in fall.  Midium sized growing to 10-15 feet tall and 8-12 feet wide.  Long bloom time – Summer  to frost!

Burgundy Cotton
An interesting combination – white blooms contrast with wine foliage in spring which turns green in summer.  Grows to 12 ft.

Red Rooster
True red blooms summer to fall and maroon-red new growth.

Twilight
Large tree growing 20-25 feet tall and 10-20 feet wide with prolific purple blooms.

Acoma
Semi-dwarf selection – a small , arching tree reaching just 10 feet tall works well in the landscape or even a large container.  White flowers.  Red/purple leaves in fall.

Tonto
A beautiful selection with red flowers and maroon foliage growing to 10-12 ft tall.

Petite Snow
Compact, dwarf shrub with white blooms.  Reaches just 3-5 ft tall and 2-4 ft wide.

Violet Filli
One of the smallest crape myrtles at just 1ft tall and wide!  Violet flowers.

Tuscarora
Dark coral-pink flowers on a broad, spreading tree reaching 20 feet tall. Foliage turns orange-red in fall.

Catawaba
Gorgeous dense shrub with violet-purple flowers.  8-10 ft tall with red-orange fall foliage.

Victor
A true dwarf!  Grows just 5 feet tall and wide with deep red blooms.

Sioux
Dark pink blooms on a small upright tree reaching 15-18 feet.  Foliage is very dark green turning to purple in fall.

Pink Velour
Neon pink flowers with red foliage that doesn’t fade!  Long bloomer.  Semi dwarf growing to 12 ft tall.

Muskogee
Light lavender-pink flowers with green foliage that turns red in fall.  Large shrub or tree reaching 20 ft tall and 15 ft wide.