Over the years I’ve written about crape myrtles several times here. That stands to reason – they’re the most popular flowering shrub in the South, blooming from May clear into September. But their prime time this year is right about now, so let me hit you with some short and unusual facts you may not have known about them.
- Crape myrtles are native to China. But their scientific name, Lagerstroemia indica, suggests India. Some botanist really messed up. It should have been L. sinensis. You knew that, didn’t you!
- All crape myrtles are genetically shrubs. It wasn’t until the late 1950s that enterprising landscape architects, searching for new accent trees for small patio gardens found they could remove crape myrtles’ lowest branches and turn big shrubs into small trees.
- Until the 1970s and ‘80s, crape myrtles were almost exclusively sold by color, not by name. You bought a “white” crape myrtle, not a “Natchez” white crape myrtle or some other variety name. Oh, that was miserable. You never knew what you were getting.
- One man, Dr. Don Egolf of the United States National Arboretum in Washington DC, grew 200,000 seedlings as he searched for unique plants with resistance to powdery mildew, great color and beautiful bark. Many of them were hybrids of Lagerstroemia fauriei, a rare species from Japan. From all those seedlings, Dr. Egolf introduced 29 varieties. That’s testimony to the extreme detail of his research. In honor of his native Oklahoma, all were given Indian tribal names.
- More recently, work of Dr. Carl Whitcomb of Oklahoma, Dr. Michael Dirr of Georgia and North Carolina and Dr. Cecil Pounders of Mississippi have led to new varieties and exciting new purple colors in foliage.
- Crape myrtles bloom on new growth. New growth is accelerated by the addition of nitrogen. Therefore, it’s safe to assume that you need to add nitrogen to crape myrtles to encourage more blooms. And that is indeed the case.
- Topping is not good. If anyone tells you that it (a) keeps the plants shorter or (b) makes them bloom better, they are wrong. Crape myrtles are genetically pre-engineered to grow to a set height. Topping them merely slows down that process. And it mangles their good looks in the process. It also delays the first bloom of the summer by six or seven weeks, so it definitely does not improve their bloom output at all.
- If you ever buy a house where a crape myrtle has been topped, your best recourse is to cut it back completely to the ground, then train the new shoots that sprout out to form a new tree. You’ll be amazed at how quickly they will develop. You have to trust me that it works, but it will.
- Perhaps you’re dismayed at how I spell “crape” or that I use two words “crape myrtle.” My dad and uncle were both PhD botanists, so I grew up in that environment. They were gone when I wanted to ask, so I called several major university plant taxonomists, and to a person they chuckled at my question. The average of their replies was, “You can use any common name you want and you can spell it however you wish. The only thing we’re going to insist on is that you spell the scientific name correctly: Lagerstroemia indica.” So I looked at the 20 reference books I felt were the most influential in American gardening. Of them, 17 used my spelling. Two used “crepe” and one used one word, “crepemyrtle.” I have merely gone with the majority. But that represents a change – early on I used the “crepe” option, too.
- There are probably 150 varieties of crape myrtles in cultivation in the United States, but only a portion of those will be seen in retail nurseries. Growers tend to choose types that grow rapidly and that can be sold quickly. It’s my opinion, having worked with crape myrtles all of my life, that there are often better varieties that ought to be considered. They too often get left behind because they take a bit longer to grow to salable size.
Best crape myrtle varieties
Crape myrtles bloom in five different colors: red, pink, lavender, purple and white. Their mature heights range from 2 to 32 feet (and taller). To help you choose the best types for your landscape, we of the Crape Myrtle Trails of McKinney polled 8-10 national authorities as to the best varieties by size. We added in a few that we knew to perform well in DFW.
Dwarf (3-5 ft.)
Red: Petite Red Imp, Petite Embers
Pink: Petite Pinkie, Pokemoke
Lavender: Petite Orchid
Purple: Petite Plum, Centennial, Velma’s Royal Delight
White: Petite Snow
Intermediate (5-10 ft.)
Red: Cheyenne, Tonto
Pink: Hopi, Pecos
White: Acoma, White Chocolate
Medium (10-20 ft.)
Red: Centennial Spirit, Dynamite, William Toovey
Pink: Osage, Pink Velour, Seminole, Tuskegee
Lavender: Apalachee, Lipan, Yuma
Purple: Catawba, Powhatan
Tall (in excess of 20 ft.)
Red: Arapaho, Red Rocket
Pink: Biloxi, Choctaw, Potomac
White: Fantasy, Glendora White, Sarah’s Favorite White, Kiowa, Townhouse
Note: Varieties Natchez, Tuscarora, Sioux, Muskogee and Country Red originally made this list, but after they froze to the ground several times following cold winters, we of the Crape Myrtle Trails of McKinney have opted to drop them from our list of recommended varieties.