Crape Myrtle Care
Crape myrtles are hands down the mainstays of the Southern summer landscape. Though the Colonial-era trees and shrubs are sometimes referred to as the “lilac of the South” most folks believe they flat out out-bloom their Northern counterparts, even without the cloying fragrance of true lilacs.
Whether you spell it crape or crepe (keep in mind that the Crape Myrtle Society of America uses the “a” which is what I prefer as well), or play it safe with the universal Latin name Lagerstroemia, the versatile shrubs and trees are sturdy backbone plants that provide both lush summer flowers and striking winter texture; many have intense orange, yellow, or red fall colors as well.
The plants come in a wide array of sizes and shapes, from statuesque trees 30 or more feet tall, to low-growing mass-groundcovers that stay under three or four feet. Different varieties can be naturally rounded or upright and vase-shaped, and are easily pruned to accentuate either.
Word of Warning
Some self-appointed horticultural tastemakers are critical of those who prune crape myrtles, calling it unnatural and distasteful (they call it “crape murder”), though if done properly this stylistic choice actually does not harm the trees. Really. In fact, I have photographed them pruned hard even in Japan - where the trees originate.
The leggy trunks of crape myrtles are satiny smooth and buff tan, which is revealed when the shaggy outer brown or grayish outer bark flakes off in large shards. The trunks of taller, more cold-hardy Japanese crape myrtles (L. fauriei) and their hybrids have large splotches cinnamon brown, making them extra colorful in the winter landscape. Most have medium green leaves, but some newer cultivars have deep burgundy, nearly black foliage that dramatically sets off the flowers.
What makes crape myrtles so irresistible are the spectacular late spring, summer, and fall flowers. The super frilly, crepe-like individual flowers of white, pink, lavender, or deep red – and even some bi-colors - are arranged at the ends of twigs in either small loose clusters or tight, heavy football-size panicles, and appear all season on new growth. After flowers fall, small round seedballs form, which can be left on or cut off to stimulate a strong flush of new flowering growth.
Not All Rosy
Problems with crape myrtles include not flowering well or at all, usually caused by a combination of factors that include not enough sunshine, poorly-drained soil or other root damage, or excess fertilizers. Powdery mildew often encases and disfigures new growth with a white mold; while many new varieties are resistant to this disease, plenty of sunshine and good air movement will reduce its impact better than routine fungicide sprays.
Aphids and leafhoppers suck sap from twigs and bottoms of leaves, and their sticky, plant-sugary dripping leads to the growth of a thin but unsightly black “sooty mold” on lower leaves and anything else underneath the trees, which can cause premature leaf drop. The only control is either regular spraying for aphids, soil-applied systemic insecticides, or simply rinsing the leaves with soapy water followed by clear water, which causes the mold to dry and flake off.
Grow crape myrtles as specimen and accents, narrow trees for fast shade, allée along streets or driveways, screens, or stately groups underplanted with groundcovers, bulbs, or small shrubs. Small varieties grow well in large containers mixed with other smaller plants.
And plant a sweetly-scented summer blooming gardenia nearby, and tell me crape myrtles don’t outshine lilacs by a Southern country mile!