Select your crape myrtles now for summer


February 10, 2005


Victoria County Master Gardener Intern


Some call it "the lilac of the South." Others label it "the most popular small flowering tree in the South." Whatever you say about it, the crape myrtle (or lagerstroemia) can be a year-round highlight to any Southern garden. It boasts colorful blooms through much of the growing season, attractive sculptural branching trunks during winter, and even the possibility of autumn color. Combine these attributes with its heat and drought tolerance, and the crape myrtle is hard to beat. If you plan on adding one or more of these beauties to your landscape this year, carefully consider its mature size for proper placement, disease resistance and color.


Few would argue with the assertion that the crape myrtle is easy care in our area, since most of us have observed them thriving for years on abandoned home sites without any human care at all. These blooming treasures are also abundant along the highways and in cemeteries in our area where they receive little attention. It seems that once planted, crape myrtles really don't need us.


But their very ability to survive and thrive, seemingly forever, is all the more reason that special care is taken in making the right selection of crape myrtle. After all, our mistakes could be around long after we are gone.


For now, however, making the right selection can actually make the gardener's life much easier. Why choose too large a variety for its intended space and sentence yourself to unnecessary pruning chores that actually disfigure the plant for life and eat up your leisure time?


Opinions abound on whether to prune crape myrtles or not; and, if so, how and how much. Current thinking is pretty much to leave them alone, removing only suckers and dead wood and perhaps thinning young tree varieties to limit the number of trunks. Many do agree that cutting off the seedpods during the growing season can extend the blooming season. Whether or not this is beneficial during winter is another source of contention.


Almost everyone now condemns the old method of topping, a practice some horticulturists have termed "crape murder." Since topping a crape myrtle generally stems from an attempt to make a large tree fit into an area appropriate only for a smaller specimen, you can avoid this dilemma by choosing the appropriate variety for your site in the first place.


Since crape myrtles vary in size from 3 to 30 feet tall or more at maturity, appropriate size selection for your space is the foremost consideration. For convenience, crape myrtle sizes can be divided into five different ranges and their appropriate usages. Refer to the chart diagram that illustrates (1) miniatures, under 3 feet; (2) small shrubs or containers plants, 3-5 feet; (3) medium shrubs, 5-10 feet; (4) large shrubs or patio trees, 10-20 feet; and (5) trees, 20 feet or more.


Keep in mind that stated sizes could vary slightly from one site to another since the same variety could grow larger in maturity if grown under more favorable circumstances.


Don't forget to also consider the mature heights of surrounding plantings when you place your crape myrtles, as they can affect the success of your crape myrtles, too. Powdery mildew, one of the few diseases that affect the crape myrtle, could eventually plague your plant if it is placed too near other trees or structures that can eventually shade it from the sun and block it from proper air circulation. You should also be sure your placement is complementary to your home and landscape, both now and when your crape myrtle reaches maturity.


Yes, planting your crape myrtle in a sunny, well-ventilated area will go a long way to controlling powdery mildew, and spraying with a fungicide such as Benomyl or Funginex will also help, but selecting a tolerant or resistant variety should be your first line of defense. Again, refer to the accompanying chart for mildew resistance of listed varieties.


Although crape myrtles have been growing for thousands of years in their native Asia and at least since the 1700s here in the U.S., that doesn't mean that our good old American ingenuity can't improve on a good thing. And that is exactly what the United States Arboretum and other breeders have done with the development of numerous crape myrtle hybrids that offer a larger variety of colors and longer growing seasons, as well as better disease resistance. The National Arboretum hybrids, some of the most popular cultivars available, are recognizable since they are named after American Indian tribes.


In recent evaluations of crape myrtle cultivars based on their disease resistance, the Louisiana State University Agriculture Center named what they consider to be the Top Eight Crape Myrtle Cultivars for Texas and Louisiana. Of the eight recommended by the Louisiana Cooperative Extension Service, seven were hybrids developed by the National Arboretum. These varieties included Natchez, Muskogee, Tuscarora, Tonto, Acoma, Sioux and Tuskegee. Another on the list, Basham's Party Pink, was the only one on the list not developed by the arboretum.


This is not to say that other varieties would not do well here. As anyone knows who has been to Louisiana, humidity there can be even more oppressive than in the Coastal Bend. It is also possible that some recently introduced hybrids may not have been included in the study. The National Arboretum, for example, has just introduced two new red crape myrtles, Arapaho and Cheyenne, as well as two new miniatures (under 3 feet), Chickasaw and Pocomoke, all of which are designed with tolerance to powdery mildew.


Here again, tolerance of or resistance to powdery mildew does not guarantee that a plant won't get the disease. It is still necessary to provide them with good air circulation, plenty of sunshine and a backup treatment of the recommended sprays if necessary.


The last consideration is not crucial to your crape myrtle's well being, nor is it going to make a difference in your available leisure time, but it is probably high priority with most homeowners.


This is the color selection.


Strictly an individual choice, the nice thing about crape myrtles is that they have a wide variety of bloom color, bark color and even autumn color from which to choose. As illustrated in the photographs and listed on the accompanying diagram, bloom colors range from white to red. From the palest pinks, corals and lavenders, to deep pinks and purples. And many of these colors are available in each of the size ranges.


In addition, most have an outer bark that peels back to reveal colors of light, medium, dark, chestnut, cinnamon and gray browns; light, medium and dark gray; cream to taupe; and even yellow to red orange on some cultivars.


Although some varieties of crape myrtles are known for their fall colors, it is a hit or miss proposition here in the coastal south. If we are fortunate enough to have a long, cool autumn, we could be blessed with such color. But since we are more likely to have a warm humid fall followed by a sudden frost, the leaves will turn brown before the autumn leaf color can form. But, just like Christmas snow, it can happen; and when it does, its rarity makes it just that much more spectacular.


Planting trees and shrubs in the fall and winter is probably the ideal in our area since this allows them time to become established before having to contend with our oppressive summer heat. But most of the local nurseries don't even get their new stock in until late spring when the plants are in bloom. This allows customers to see the plants' colors before making a selection. This is not a big problem since most crape myrtles are available in containers. With a little extra TLC, container plants can be planted just about anytime.


By planning ahead now, you will be ready when the new plants arrive. Just remember, when selecting your crape myrtle keep its ultimate size in mind, place it in a site that is and will continue to be advantageous to its welfare and attractiveness, take the necessary steps to avoid or combat powdery mildew, and select colors that you love and that complement your landscape plan. That accomplished, you and your crape myrtle can live happily ever after.