Crepe Myrtle: Amazing Summer Flowers, Attractive Bark, Brilliant Fall Color
Lagerstroemia indica and Lagerstroemia x fauriei, are more commonly called crepe myrtle; they are spectacular plants with amazing summer flowers, attractive bark, and (in many cases) brilliant fall color that makes them year-round garden performers. You will find crepe myrtles in the southeast running up into the Mid-Atlantic States (as far north as Baltimore, Maryland), the Southwest, and along the West Coast from California to Washington State. They thrive and are magnificent when planted in the right sport, but they do not tolerate harsh winters with below zero temperatures.
Crepe myrtles are commonly multi-trunked; however, there are single trunk specimens available. A canopy of foliage covers the top half of the plant, with the bottom half of the plant remaining leafless, revealing the beautiful bark. The smooth bark exfoliates, flaking off in irregular patches to reveal shades of brown to gray. The leaves are a glossy medium green, turning yellow, red-orange, or red in the fall.
One of the prominent features of the crepe myrtle is the spectacular flowers, formed in large panicles ranging from 6 to 8 inches in length and 3 to 5 inches in width. The petals have a crinkled appearance, similar to crepe paper, hence the name. Flowers bloom from mid-June through September, flower color ranges from white to various shades of pink, purple, and red.
Most crepe myrtles in gardens are selections of L. indica or hybrids of that species with L. fauriei. The latter species has attracted much notice for its hardiness and exceptionally showy bark. Queen’s crepe myrtle, L. speciosa, grows only in more tropical portions of the south.
How To Make Your Crepe Myrtle Thrive
The crepe myrtle is a very adaptable plant. It grows best in moist, well-drained soils; prefers full sun, and is drought resistant. To produce large flowers and control larger growing cultivars, plants should be severely pruned (see pruning notes) before the new growth emerges in the spring. Blooms are most abundant in soils low in nutrients, especially nitrogen, which can cause a lack of blooms. Throughout the bloom season, additional flowering can be stimulated by fertilization and the removal of faded blooms.
Types of Crepe Myrtle
Japanese crepe myrtle or L. fauriei is native to Japan. This tree will reach a height of 20 to 30 feet at maturity with erect habit and outward arching branches. The foliage is light green and 4 inches long and 2 inches wide. Leaves turn a beautiful yellow in fall. The outer bark is a smooth gray and flakes away to reveal glossy cinnamon brown bark beneath. Small white flowers are borne in 2 to 4 inch long clusters in early summer; often blooms again in late summer. L. fauriei is resistant to mildew and best known as a parent of hardy, mildew-resistant hybrids with L. indica, though it is handsome in its own right. ‘Fantasy’, with even showier bark than the species, has a vase form, narrow below, spreading above. ‘Kiowa’ has outstanding cinnamon colored bark.
Crepe myrtle L. indica is the premier summer flowering tree of the South. It tolerates heat, humidity, and drought; it does well in most soils as long as it is well drained. If you are planting where winter is harsher such as the Upper South or along the Atlantic Seaboard you should plant cold hardy selections such as ‘Acoma’, ‘Centennial Spirit’, and ‘Hopi’. Options are variable in size (some forms are dwarf shrubs, others large shrubs or small trees) and habit (spreading or upright). The leaves are dark green leaves and reach a length of 1 to 2 1/2 inches. The leaves are narrower usually tinted red when new, and they often turn brilliant orange or red in fall. The flowers are crinkled, crepe-papery, and are 1 to 1 1/2-inchs wide flowers; they come in white, or shades of pink, red, or purple, and are carried in dense clusters.
When this plant is trained as a tree, it develops an attractive trunk and branch pattern. Smooth gray or light brown bark peels off to reveal smooth, pinkish inner bark; winter trunk and branches seem polished.
Important Planting Note
Container grown plants can be planted at any time of the year; however, they must be watered conscientiously, particularly if they are planted in the summer. Balled and burlapped and bare root plants are generally better able to become established if they are planted during the dormant season. Although the canopy may have lost its leaves in the fall, the roots typically remain active later into the fall and early winter. This plant can be easily moved in the landscape, this should be done during the fall or late winter.
General Crepe Myrtle Information
Mildew can be a problem. Spray with triforine (Funginex) before plants bloom, or grow mildew-resistant hybrids of L. indica and L. fauriei. Almost all selections with names of Native American tribes, such as ‘Hopi’, ‘Miami’, and ‘Zuni’, are mildew resistant.
Planting in a sunny location with good air circulation goes a long way in controlling and pests and disease.
Crepe myrtles can be propagated easily through several methods. The most commonly used methods of propagation are hardwood and softwood cuttings. To propagate by hardwood cuttings take 8 inch long and 1/2 inch diameter cuttings in early to mid-November. Stick several cuttings in a container filled with a potting soil or well drained garden soil. About an inch of the cutting should protrude above the soil line. These cuttings can be left outside but should be protected from a hard freeze. Once new growth has emerged place the container in a sunny location and keep it watered until you can plant them in the summer or fall.
Softwood cuttings consist of 4 to 6 inch cuttings taken from actively growing shoots at any time during the growing season. The cut ends can be dipped in a rooting hormone and then stuck in a well drained potting mix. Keep the cuttings misted to avoid drying out before roots can form. Rooted cuttings can then be planted in larger pots and grown to a larger size to improve survivability when placed in the landscape.
Aggressively pruning in late winter promotes lush new growth in the spring. Flowers are produced on current season’s growth so flowers develop even after such severe pruning. However, such pruning can destroy the natural character of the plant, with the winter form being an unsightly stemmy mess. Pruning aggressively will also promote sucker growth which detracts from the beauty of the trunk.
Preferred pruning practices involve limited pruning. Some thinning of branches to enhance plant form is desirable, but heavy pruning is not needed. A wide assortment of crape myrtle cultivars offers a variety of sizes that can be tailored to the site (right plant – right location). Some selections are shrub like in form growing to a size of only 3 to 5 feet, while others become sizeable small trees in the 25 to 35 foot range. There is a crepe myrtle for just about every situation.
Some of the earlier flowering cultivars can be induced to produce additional blooms later in the summer by reducing the spent flower clusters. However, there is some concern that this can reduce cold hardiness of the plant.
Crepe myrtles are a valuable landscape plant that can be used as a shrub or small tree; reaching a height of 25 feet at maturity. It is an asset to almost any landscape, it is both a very beautiful specimen shrub or tree, often used in groups under planted with a ground cover. The dark green ground cover contrasts beautifully with the gray to tan shades of the handsome bark. The smaller varieties can be used as hedges, screens, or in masses. Planted in this manner you will get a grand display of color throughout the summer months.
- Deciduous/Evergreen: Deciduous
- Height: 12 to 30 feet depending on species
- Spacing: 8 to 10 feet depending on species
- Hardiness: 7a to 9b
- Sun Exposure: Full sun
- Bloom Color: Pink, fuchsia (red-purple), red, coral/apricot, white/near white
- Bloom Time: Mid-summer, late Summer/early fall, mid fall
- Foliage: Green to Bronze
- Water Needs: Water regularly, do not overwater
- Soil pH Requirements: 5.1 (strongly acidic) to 6.5 (mildly acidic)
- Propagation Methods: From softwood cuttings, hardwood cuttings, or air layering
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