All Summer Color
Popular throughout much of the South the splashy crepe myrtle has solved garden problems for the last 1000 years. Here is how to select from the many choices available and how to grow it for best results. Its bright and varied colors make us happy. The tree is a summer bloomer, always harder to find than those that bloom in spring. Even better the crepe myrtle is showy with crinkled petals, and the deciduous foliage is dark green with yellows, oranges, and reds in the fall. In warm climates, blooms will last from June to September, and some varieties in fall.
Native to Asia, the plant has been with us for 1000 years and our new disease-resistant cultivars with vibrant colors make it easy to use this tree throughout the mild climate world. The nickname ‘the 100-day tree’ used throughout the American South refers to the full summer of flowers the tree delivers.
Crepe Myrtle-What it Is
The flowering tree we call Crepe Myrtle is the genus Lagerstroemia and includes approximately 50 species. The woody plant grows in a wide range of sizes and is used as both a single and multi-trunk tree. It is noted for panicles of crinkled flowers that appear over a long blooming period covering summer and in some cases fall as well as its characteristic peeling bark. It is a member of the Lythraceae family which consists of flowering shrubs and trees that cover the tropical and some temperate areas of the world. The family members are characterized by crinkled flowers.
The plants you will see the most include these:
Crepe Myrtle Species
Lagerstroemia indica-the common crepe myrtle, native to China, Japan, India, and Korea. This is the first plant imported to the West.
The following are plants used for cross-breeding to develop new cultivars with color variety and disease resistance. It is their offspring you will be offered by growers.
- Lagerstroemia subcostata-the Chinese Crepe Myrtle
- Lagerstroemia limii-Chinese origins
- Lagerstroemia Japanese Crepe Myrtle, white flowers, resistance to cold and powdery mildew
Crepe Myrtle History-1000 Years of Gardens
In 1759 the tree entered England from its native China. For many plants, this is a benefit but not for the Crepe Myrtle. It never bloomed and nobody was happy! Then the plant hunter and botanist Andre Michaux (he worked for Louis XVI) brought it to Charleston in 1786. The Revolution was over and everybody celebrated including the tree. Lots of blooms and the rest is history.
(The tree is used in the UK and in fact, has a RHS award of garden merit, so apparently all is forgiven.)
The tree is believed to have been around for 1000 years but it is the last 25 years that have seen considerable progress in the development of useful and attractive cultivars that improved disease resistance, hardiness, and vigor. This includes a considerably improved resistance to powdery mildew, an important step forward.
Today, you can expect to be shown an astounding choice of colors in tree blooms. This is true of the different sizes of trees also. You can find vibrant choices no matter what spot in your garden you are filling.
The Common Name Crepe Myrtle-How We Got It and How To Spell It
You will find trees for sale labeled as Crape Myrtle. Crepe Myrtle and Crapemyrtle, they’re all the same! The name comes from two facts crinkled flower and the myrtle-like small leaves. As are many names in horticulture it is inaccurate-the tree has nothing to do with myrtle.
|Japanese Crepe Myrtle
|Indica Crepe Myrtle
|Queen’s Crepe Myrtle
|light green, yellow in fall
|dark green, red tint on new growth
|large, turn red in fall
|2-4″ clusters, white, hybridized with indica
|dense clusters, white, pink, red, purple
|very large white, pink, lavender, purple
|smooth gray, brown with cinnamon inner bark
|gray, light brown pink inner bark
|tree, 20-30′ These are the most resistant to the problem of powdery mildew
|dwarf to small tree
|tree, 25-30′-showiest, least cold hardy. prune in winter
How To Use The Crape Myrtle
This plant has a wide range of sizes with dwarf varieties under 5′ and larger trees at 30′ to 40′. They are grown as both single and multi-trunked, the combination provides a range of uses in the garden.
It is time-consuming to change the growing habits of a Crape Myrtle tree. Buy the trunk structure you plan to keep.
A tree dealer has good size and structure information on its website. Planting Tree Nursery
Uses for Crape Myrtle
- Screen- deciduous, dense
- Specimen-colorful centerpiece-away from buildings
- Shrub borders-extend spring color
- Color in the background
- Foreground-use small varieties, 2-4′ low maintenance
- Container plants
- Frame a Courtyard
Crepe Myrle is cold hardy in zones 7-10, which means the plant will accept temperatures of 0 degrees Fahrenheit. Some varieties such as Red Rocket are hardy to zone 6, always check the specifications at your dealer.
How to find your USDA plant hardiness zone? Use this link and add your zip code. You will see the interactive map.
How To Plant Crepe Myrtle
Plant dormant Crepe Myrtle in early spring or late fall when cool. Dig the hole 2 times the width of the root ball and as deep. Remove the tree, carefully, placing the plant on its side. Place in the hole without holding the trunk. Fill in the hole and water well.
Plan to provide your tree with full sun conditions, which we define as from 6-8 hours per day. In our zone 10 South Florida climate, they will accept the shorter end of the time period. The plant will grow in less sunlight but you will notice diminished color from the flowers.
Crepe Myrtle is adaptable to a range of soil types, loam, clay or sand is acceptable. The pH range is from 5.5-7.5. The tree prefers moist and well-drained soil but is moderately drought-tolerant.
Water the new plant 1-3 times per week. Maintain water during dry periods. How to tell if your shrub or tree is too dry or wet? Feel the soil, damp soil is perfect and the plant should appear lush, if too wet it may produce fewer flowers, the foliage and flowers will be pale in color and leaves will drop before maturity. If the soil is dry to the touch the plant is dehydrated, and you may notice wilting leaves and drooping stems.
Use a high-nitrogen fertilizer in spring and again in two months. Check the directions, over-fertilization will result in fewer flowers on your tree.
How To Prune
There is a crime called “Crepe Murder” and we have all seen it. Prune while dormant. (If you do not trim the plant yourself they are considered one of the more expensive plants to prune.)
Timing your pruning; Crape Myrtle blooms on new wood. This means pruning should be complete before the plant begins to set blooms.
Tools You Will Need
- hand pruners for branches under 1/2″
- Lopers for branches 11/2-1 1/2″
- Pole pruner or saw for branches over 1 1/2″
Trim In This Order
- tiny spikes from the ground
- side branches from the main trunk up to 4′
- inward growing branches
- Awkwardly growing branches
- Trin the top, they do not need to be chopped
- Make angled cuts just above a bud
Why Do We Commit “Crepe Murder”?
“Wrong Plant Wrong Place”. Plants that looked perfect in the garden center, then planted in a spot they are too big for, is the most common reason.
Popular Varieties Not To Put In Front Of A Window
You will see these popular varieties, but they will reach heights of 25-30′: Natchez (white), Miami, Sioux, Dynamite Muskogee (light lavender), and Watermelon Red.
Compact Varieties: Acona, Centennial, Hopi, Prairie, Lace. Victor, Zuni (purple semi dwarf). They are about 5’tall and 4′ wide. Check the individual varieties. These are from the Monrovia webpage and are from its petite line.
What If Crime Has Already Been Done?
Researchers at the University of Florida, tested trees, some post-crime and the rest in normal condition. They discovered that the “topped” trees had 6 times more deadwood than the undamaged trees. They also discovered damaged wood to 2.5 feet below the large cuts.
What To Do?
Reduce the width of the tree by removing some lower branches. Then reduce the crown by removing some entire upper branches and lowering the rest. The tree will look better and you will not add to the damage.
Pests And Diseases
The Crepe Myrtle is essentially pest-free, They will be attacked by aphids, sooty mold, and powdery mildew. Powdery mildew is a fungal disease characterized by blisters and twisted leaves.
How To Avoid Powdery Mildew /Fungal Disease
- Plant Disease resistant cultivars
- Remove damaged foliage
- Use a thick layer of mulch
- Prune and stake to improve air circulation
- Wash plants with neem oil on a 7-day basis
- Water in the AM
- Use slow-release fertilizer
- Destroy fallen plant material at season-end
If disease is present use a fungicide, following the directions/
The branches are sculptural. the large flourishes of flowers are audacious. The Crepe Myrtle is the most popular ornamental plant in the south. Now you know why!
The eternal question? Is it Crepe Myrtle or is it Crape Myrtle? Do what you want, both are accurate. The story goes, that in the deep South it is Crepe Myrtle because they say it looks like crape paper. So take your choice!
To see some more flowering tree ideas try this post ‘The Flowering Tree List’.
For some university-based research into a new variety of red Crepe Myrtle try this piece.