The Garden Guru: Crape myrtle, a Southern classic

Posted Saturday, Jun. 29, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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As much as I love crape myrtles, I sometimes forget how truly beautiful they are every year until about now. It’s easy to see why they’re the most popular flowering shrub or small tree in the South, and why they’ve held that distinction for 200 years. This has the makings of a stellar year for them.

Crape myrtles were introduced from China into the United States. Thomas Jefferson grew them at Monticello, and they were documented in South Carolina some 210 years ago. Some of the early plantings are still going strong, further testimony to the plant’s enduring character.

There were watershed happenings in the world of crape myrtles beginning around 1960. That was about the time that landscape architects and nurserymen began to realize that the plants we’d been growing as massive shrubs could be “limbed up” and converted into stunning small patio trees with beautiful trunks. The early ’60s was also the time when named varieties began to hit the big time. Even through the ’60s, ’70s and into the ’80s, people were still buying only by color. Crape myrtles’ shades include reds, pinks, white, lavenders and purples, and many of us simply asked for them by those terms.

In the early 1960s, a couple of plant sources started offering smaller types. Park Seed Co. (Greenwood, S.C.) sold seeds for Crape Myrtlettes — dwarf crape myrtles that could be started from seeds. Candidly, as great as Park Seeds was and is as a seed source, this particular offering didn’t amount to much. But Monrovia Nursery Company, a huge West Coast wholesaler, began selling the Petite series of dwarf crape myrtles about that same time, and these were the real deal. Several of those types are still grown and sold.

In the late 1960s, crape myrtles were changed forever. Don Egolf, a highly skilled plantsman and hybridizer at the U.S. National Arboretum, introduced Lagerstroemia fauriei, a little-known species from Japan, into his breeding program. He was searching for mildew resistance and the stunning trunk colors of the Japanese species, and he was trying to combine them into the deep and rich colors of the old species, L. indica.

Egolf’s careful record-keeping and patient nature allowed him to grow some 200,000 seedlings. From them, he selected and introduced almost 30 superior varieties. Originally from Oklahoma, Egolf assigned American Indian tribal names to his best selections, and that was where we got Natchez, Muskogee, Tuscarora, Sioux, Acoma, Powhatan, Arapaho, Kiowa and all the others we’ve come to know and love.

I had the pleasure of watching Egolf work with Benny Simpson at the Texas A&M Center in Dallas 35 years ago. Horticulture would have been even better if both of these fine men had lived a lot longer. But look what we have nonetheless.

What everyone should know about choosing and using crape myrtles:

I’ve boiled some critical points into short bullets. Each is nonnegotiable in my eyes. I hope you find them useful.

• Crape myrtles must have full sun to do their best. They bloom on new growth, so nitrogen fertilizer gives the best impact. They’re drought-tolerant, but best growth and bloom will come when they’re kept moist.

• Crape myrtles show best when you use a grouping of the same color and variety. Ask your nurseryman how much distance to allow between plants.

• Crape myrtles stand out boldly when they’re used against a contrasting color. Deep-green foliage, for example of tall junipers or hollies, works well. So can brick walls of your home. However, remember the color of your bricks as you’re choosing crape myrtles. The new screaming reds of Dynamite, Red Rocket and Siren Red, while highly popular and stunning in front of evergreens, can be unsettling when planted against bricks in another shade of red. Bring a photo of your house with you to the nursery.

• Choose according to size and color. There are more than 120 varieties of crape myrtles. Find one that fits the space you have available.

• Never “top” a crape myrtle for any reason. Topping ruins them forever. It delays flowering, and it lessens total flower production. Never use pruning as a means of controlling size. If you have a crape myrtle that’s growing too tall, relocate or remove it.

Summer is a great time to buy and plant new crape myrtles. Selections are at their best, and you can see them in bloom. Transport them home carefully, protecting them from highway wind. Plant them immediately. Hand-water them every couple of days for the rest of this growing season.

Neil Sperry publishes “Gardens” magazine and hosts “Texas Gardening” from 8 to 11 a.m. Sundays on WBAP AM/FM. Reach him during those hours at 800-288-9227 or 214-787-1820.

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