Crepe Myrtles (sometimes spelled Crape Myrtles) are shrubs or small trees that are widely grown in warmer regions for their large, dramatic and colorful flowers which are produced all summer. Their bright colors are bold in the brightest sunlight and these rapid-growing plants will quickly bring your garden alive. They are easy to grow and some can grow up to 5 feet a year, so unlike some other plants that need patience to be seen at their best, Crepe Myrtle trees will rapidly grow into substantial plants that will give your new garden a feel of maturity.
They grow best in warmer regions and have been grown in the South for centuries, where they are associated with long, hot days, mint juleps on the porch and the brightness of a southern summer. Many of the newer forms, however, are frost-hardy; so for the first time that southern color can be seen in northern gardens. Most Crepes are tolerant of many kinds of soils, drought-resistant and just ask for a sunny spot to grow in to bring their radiance to your garden. Not only are they colorful all summer long, but they have gorgeous fall color too, and often attractive bark and colorful spring leaves as well, so they bring interest to your garden all year round.
Using Crepe Myrtles on Your Property
They come in a variety of sizes, from medium shrubs to small trees, so there is a variety that will satisfy your needs. As well, with pruning, they can be modified in height and also turned into small trees which are excellent lawn specimens for smaller gardens. So they will fit well into a border of shrubs or stand alone as a specimen in a lawn, beside a driveway, as part of the foundation planting around your house, or as a spectacular hedge and screen. No matter the size of our property, from a few square feet to several acres, these trees have a lot to offer the gardener who loves color without a lot of work – and isn’t that every gardener?
Appearance of Crepe Myrtles
Lagastroemia are shrubs or small trees that have several main stems and arching upper branches, which end in big sprays of flowers. They form larger shrubs or smaller trees between 5 and 25 feet tall, depending on the variety, pruning methods and location. The bark is mottled and usually grey-pink in color; some of the newer forms, like the Natchez, have especially beautiful bark which is mottled in gray, brown and maroon shades.
The leaves are up to 4 inches long and 2 inches wide, with smooth edges and a healthy, glossy appearance. They are green in summer and turn red or yellow in fall, but some of the newer forms have attractive colored leaves in spring too, like the Dynamite Crepe, which is also especially recommended for its particularly brilliant fall color.
The spectacular flowers were originally lavender-pink, but hard-working Crepe breeders have produced varieties which cover the spectrum from white, bright pink, lavender, purple, deep pink to shades of brilliant red. The individual crepe flowers are 1 or 2 inches across, with many petals, but they are clustered together into large heads up to 14 inches long, which form at the ends of the branches.
The weight of the flowers causes the branches to arch over, giving the plant an elegant, relaxed appearance. In warmer regions flowering can start as early as May and continue right up to frost, but they are at their best in summer, when most other flowers are finished blooming, which makes them especially valuable for keeping flowers in your garden for as many months as possible.
Crepe Myrtle Hardiness and Growing Conditions
Most varieties grow in zones 7, 8 and 9, from Virginia throughout the South, and from Texas across to California and right up the west coast. Once established they will grow well in dry conditions as well as normal soil. In fact, if you have soil that is always wet they are not a good choice, unless you can plant in a higher area away from the water.
For many years these trees have been associated with the South and warmer regions, but in recent years a lot of work has been done to make them hardier and most varieties can now be grown in zone 6 and even into zone 5. In those areas the branches will die in the winter but they will quickly re-sprout from the ground in spring and often grow as much as 5 feet tall in a single season. Because they flower at the ends of their new shoots these plants will flower just as well as their southern neighbors but of course they will not grow as tall. So you can plant them among smaller shrubs or even perennial flowers and they will look spectacular.
As a whole, most Crepes do best in full sun and although they will grow in shade they will flower less and be more subject to disease, so if you don’t have a sunny garden and are looking for summer flower color, you might consider Hydrangeas, which are also spectacular and very shade tolerant. As for soil, all kinds of soils are fine for them, including alkaline and clay soils.
Planting Crepe Myrtles
It is important when planting both the tree and shrub version not to plant any deeper than the containers they are in and not to cover the roots with a lot of soil. So dig a hole two or three times wider than the pot, but no deeper. Place your crepe in the hole, replace most of the soil and firm it down well.
Then water thoroughly. When the water has drained away replace the rest of the soil, being careful not to cover the roots of the Crepe with any extra soil. For the first season be sure to water well once a week so that the roots can spread out, but after that your plants will only need water during very extended dry periods. During summer try not to spray the foliage of your Crepe Myrtles with water, which only encourages disease.
Points of Interest
The common crepe myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica) was first brought to Charleston, South Carolina around 1790 from its natural home in China and Korea. It thrived in the warm climate there and has long been a symbol of summer in the South, with its vivid blooms. From those original plants many forms have been bred, often by crossing this plant with the Japanese Crepe Myrtle (Lagerstroemia fauriei).
The original Lagastroemia were white or lavender but many breeders have worked hard to introduce wonderful new colors. Dr Carl Whitcomb, a famous professor and plant breeder, stand out among these breeders. He is responsible for a whole new generation of varieties that have eclipsed the older varieties. Many of his plants have exploded onto the gardening scene and are considered among the best and most popular Crapes available. The Dynamite, with its rapid growth and fantastic red flowers is a special favorite, as too is his gorgeous Pink Velour.
Long-term Care with Crepe Myrtles
Because they are so hardy and drought-resistant, once you have planted your tree there is not much to do but sit back and watch the fireworks. If you want to produce a tree-form Crepe, just prune away the lower branches of the Crepe gradually until your tree is the height you want it to be.
The trees normally grow several trunks, but with a little attention a single trunk can be produced. If you wish, remove the flower heads as they die, as this will encourage even more new flowers to form. During the winter, long shoots of the Crepe can be cut back to control the height of your tree if needed, and to develop a bushier crown.
If your Crepe is in too shady a spot, has regularly wet foliage or while growing during very humid weather it may develop a disease called mildew. This is a white growth that coats the leaves. It does no harm and next year the new growth will be clean and healthy. Most of the new varieties of Lagastroemia have been developed to be more resistant to this disease so it is usually not much of a concern.
If you live in an area where this disease is very prevalent, the National Arboretum in Washington DC has a special program to develop mildew-resistant forms of trees for just those areas. The Natchez is one of their varieties and is especially recommended if mildew is a likely problem.
A Beautiful Shrub for Warmer Climates
Crepe Myrtles are great shrubs or small trees for sunny locations in warmer areas that will bring brilliant color to the summer months and often flower right up to the first frost. With their wide range of colors and sizes they should be in every warm garden and with newer varieties being hardy even into zone 5 they will bring joy and beauty to cooler regions as well.