In Praise of Crape Myrtles

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Just like spring with the lovely cherry blossoms, Capitol Hill has exploded in dramatic colors throughout the Hill.  Bright pinks, fuchsia, lavender, and white blossoms start blooming in August on crape myrtle shrubs and trees.  It is often called the lilac of the south and is certainly a summer showstopper.  Not only are the blooms stunning, but the bark and even the foliage are eye-catching.  With 440 cultivars to choose from, there is a crape myrtle tree for everyone.

They have long been symbols of innocence and purity and are often used as a wedding flower.  In fact, Meghan Markle had a sprig of myrtle in her bride’s bouquet, as did Duchess Camilla Parker Bowles.  There are many references to myrtles in mythology and the Bible. The plant is associated with Aphrodite and Venus and the scent has been considered an aphrodisiac. In Judaism, it is one of the four sacred plants, spreading fragrance and good works.

History of Crape myrtles
Crape myrtles, Lagerstroemia, are native to China, Japan, and Korea in the warmer climates.  The trees were presented by a Swedish director of the East Indian Company to Carl Linnaeus, the father of taxonomy.  The beautiful plant eventually ended up in

England in 1789, but the cooler climate did not produce great results.  It was brought to Charleston, South Carolina in 1787 and was an instant success.  The tree was introduced at Mt. Vernon and graces the grounds there to this day.

The plants propagate quickly, so crape myrtles became one of the favorite trees almost overnight in the south.  But these Asian species were susceptible to powdery mildew.  In the 1950s, Dr. John Creech of the US National Arboretum went to Japan and brought back seeds from five different species.  It was a great turning point for the crape myrtle, as Dr. Creech and Dr. Donald Egolf began to cross breed the original trees with the Japanese seeds.  The result was a new crape myrtle that grew taller with a beautiful shape and more importantly was resistant to the powdery mildew.  Dr. Egolf used Native American names like Muskogee, Natchez, Zuni, Tonto and Arapaho for his new species.  He is remembered for introducing over 23 new species during his career with the Arboretum.

The Arboretum continues its breeding program, and the experimental plot at the Arboretum is a delightful field to explore.  Dr. Margaret Pooler heads this work today. Others have contributed as well. Dr. Carl Whitcomb in Oklahoma grew over 65,000 seedlings and has introduced some of the currently popular cultivars including Raspberry Sundae, Dynamite, and Red Rocket. Another well-known breeder is Dr. Michael Dirr, a former professor at the University of Georgia.  Dr. Dirr’s crape myrtle breeds are reblooming with a wide range of color.  He continues his research with new plants coming to market each year.

Growing Your Own Crape Myrtle
First, it is important to know that there are crape myrtle shrubs that are smaller and fuller than the crape myrtle tree which can grow as tall as 40 feet.  One of the best known shrub versions is “Chickasaw,” an Arboretum breed by Dr. Egoff, that grows to 20 inches high and 26 inches wide.  It can easily be grown in a container as can “Pocomoke” that is 19 inches tall and 35 inches wide.  Crape myrtles have a life expectancy of fifty plus years.

Urban Forester, Cece McCrary, of Casey Trees reports that crape myrtles are a very popular urban tree and one they use often in their tree planting in this area. The crape myrtles need full sun in well-drained, moist soil.  Many of the crape myrtles on Capitol Hill are shrubs that have been pruned into a tree.  The plant grows well in acidic and alkaline soils and can be heat tolerant.  McCrary says the “crape myrtles are very beautiful, and the blooms last for many weeks, with an added benefit that pollinators (think bees and other insects) are drawn to the myrtles as well.”

To Prune or Not to Prune
Growers all agree that gardeners should avoid excessive watering, pruning or fertilizing of the plants in the fall.  Pruning is a sensitive issue.  There has been a trend to prune the tops of crape myrtle’s thinking it would keep the plant from growing too tall.  This mistaken approach has become so prevalent that nursery staff call it “Crape Murder.”  Pruning the top ruins the tree for life. They will never regrow and they lose their shape.  If you need to prune, it should be done late in the season and always after the tree has bloomed.  Pruning done too early will cause the tree not to bloom.  It is also fine not to prune at all.

Late fall to early spring is the best time of year to plant a crape myrtle.  The shrub or tree does not have invasive roots, so they can be planted near a building.  But beware when the tree grows full size, it will take up a wide space.

Finally, crape myrtles show off year-round.  After the beautiful summer blooms, the tree leaves produce fall colors of orange, red, and yellow. Then, in the winter going into spring, the tree will shed its bark once it has reached maturity.  Shedding usually starts around five years of age. The bark is now multiple colors often with a pink tone and very smooth. Just remember, the tree is perfectly healthy if shedding.

Time to add crape myrtles to your favorite flowering tree list.  With the warming climate, they will grow quite well on the Hill.  Let’s give Gin Phillips, a southern writer, the last word as she describes this wondrous plant. “The blossom is scattering off the crape myrtles every time the fall wind blows, falling like hot pink confetti.”

Rindy Obrien was nearly named Myrtle after her great-grandmother. She has always cherished the crape myrtle for adding such beautiful color in August. Contact her at [email protected]