The Crape Myrtle: Visitor From The South

The original lavender pink has been bred to provide a broad range of colors, including immaculate white and pure pinks, in addition to a number of reds and a deep purple. Durell Godfrey

Should you find yourself in the American South in summertime, you will see what look from a distance like giant azaleas, with a comparable palette. In Charleston, Memphis, Raleigh, Houston, and Savannah, crape myrtles are found as municipal plantings, on commercial lots, and in private gardens.

Crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia) was virtually unknown in our area as recently as three decades ago. Two things changed that. One was the realization by many Long Island gardeners that we enjoy a more forgiving climate, surrounded as we are by the sea, than might be indicated by latitude alone. Also important was a breeding program by the federal government using two distinct Lagerstroemia species.

Native to Southeast Asia, Lagerstroemia indica is a large shrub with spectacular bloom clusters in the range of purple, lavender, red, pink, and white. It also puts on a flaming autumn display. But it is susceptible to powdery mildew, and, hailing from a subtropical region, is not particularly cold hardy. The default color of this species, as in buddleia and phlox, is a nondescript lavender pink.

Native to Japan, Lagerstroemia fauriei is a handsome small tree to 50 feet, with a narrow upright vase silhouette, beautiful bark in shades of tan, cream, and cinnamon, and white flowers. Much more cold hardy than the previous crepe myrtle, it is also resistant to powdery mildew.

Crosses of the two in the 1960s by the National Arboretum created garden-worthy hybrids incorporating the best traits of both. Significantly for us, the potential geographic zone of planting suitability expanded well to the north. With the hybrids, powdery mildew is less of a nuisance, but it is always good to situate in full sun.

The term crape myrtle (crape is the preferred spelling) references the texture of the one-inch flowers, composed of tiny tissue thin petals with ruffled edges reminiscent of crepe paper.

Hundreds of flowers form great football-size billows at the branch tips. The best colors are those that have been bred furthest from the original lavender pink of Lagerstroemia indica, which contains the genetics to have permitted deep purple, immaculate white, and pure pinks and reds.

Mature height varies greatly, from knee-high to house-high. Growth habit can be upright, rounded, semi-weeping, or trailing. Leaves are rounded and privet-like.

What these plants chiefly want is heat and plentiful sunlight — keep it out of the woodland. Happy in a parking lot island surrounded by baking asphalt, it makes an excellent street tree that tolerates a limited root run, and it is drought resistant once established.

For the home garden, crape myrtle is meant for center stage in the front yard or for a starring role in the backyard by a pool or patio. It is also ideal as a lawn specimen because the fallen leaves and petals are tiny enough to disappear among the blades of grass.

Limb up to expose the trunk and lower branches. If you are lucky enough to have deer in your garden, they will happily do this for you.

You can purchase those that have already been trained to a single trunk, or you can just as easily choose those with multiple trunks.

Minor problems can be easily avoided. Thin bark is vulnerable to injury from weed whackers. One overzealous cleanup session can completely girdle the trunk, possibly causing death. Place plastic guards around the base; or, even better, pull herbaceous offenders by hand.

Another minor problem is that younger plants and certain varieties can be prone to sucker. You may have to clip off base sprouts several times per summer. With age and size, this seems to diminish.

Among a handful of woody plants, crape myrtle provides pronounced four-season interest. Spring comes to this plant quite a long while after it does to the mass of other deciduous ornamentals. The attractive emerging leaves are part of the run-up to Memorial Day; so the ground beneath stays sunny enough to allow the bulbs of midspring — hyacinths, perennial tulips, and jonquils — to sparkle, prosper, and increase.

Summer ushers in the main event, beginning in late July and continuing until early October. This fills an otherwise largely green gap between the finale of late spring flowers and the rise of turning foliage in fall.

Autumn brings flame from late October to early November. Flower and leaf pigment correlate, with leaves of palest varieties bleaching to yellow, intermediate varieties displaying across the warm spectrum, and saturated hues flushing to red and maroon.

Winter reveals beautiful bark, smooth and peeling in large strips to produce a patchwork that, depending on variety, showcases shades of cream, tan, beige, and chestnut. It is outdoor art in the dead of winter, working well against a snowy or barren or evergreen background.

“Tuscarora” blooms coral pink on a small tree. It is a showstopper at its late summer peak, often around Labor Day.

“Natchez” is most common in the Hamptons. Huge, dazzling white inflorescences on a graceful tree are elegant and fit into almost any landscape. (It is in season for August and September outdoor weddings.)

“Red Rocket,” “Dynamite,” “Black Diamond,” and “Red Rooster” are popular reds. Because of the intensity of color, they might best be paired with white flowered varieties.

“Catawba” is an outstanding purple. It is a cultivar of Lagerstroemia indica rather than a hybrid. As such, it demands the sunniest possible location with excellent air circulation to avoid mildew.

A practical and pleasing tableau is yellow Stella D’Oro day lilies, blue mophead hydrangeas, and crape myrtles of red and white. Such a combination makes sense here because it crescendos when houses are actually occupied.

The smart move is to purchase locally. Powwow with your nursery and special order for spring planting to ensure that you get the selections you want. And enjoy a reverie of the South this summer.

Left, the flowers of crape myrtles are composed of tiny, thin petals with ruffled edges. Right, this vibrant color reminds one observer of watermelon on ice. Durell Godfrey
Winter reveals beautiful peeling bark on the crape myrtles’ multiple trunks. Durell Godfrey