Traveling around town it’s hard to miss those flowering crape myrtles. The flowers are as stunning and as varied in colors and sizes as you can imagine. There is a size and color for every taste from full-sized 40-foot-tall trees to shrubs two feet tall.
Crape myrtles all have those same gorgeous flowers that are often called “Southern Lilacs” because of their striking resemblance to the northern shrub that can’t tolerate our summer heat (or winter heat I should say). The name comes from the flower’s crinkly resemblance to crepe paper.
How and why the spelling was changed is beyond me. The myrtle part of the name comes from the leaves’ resemblance to the true myrtle Myrtus communis.
Crape myrtles originated from Southeast Asia and eventually made their way to the U.S. as an ornamental flower more than 150 years ago. Of course, Americans being Americans, tinkering with the original plants began immediately and today there are some hundreds if not thousands of variants to choose from.
In Asia the crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica) is harvested as lumber as well as planted for its ornamental value. Quite a versatile woody plant I’d say.
Although drought tolerant and cold hardy, newly planted crapemyrtles should be watered enough to keep the soil from drying out yet not allowing the roots to be constantly submerged, a surefire fungus cause. Cold hardy does not mean cold-proof.
Frostbitten plants should have the dead branches pruned off one node above the dead wood.
It may be difficult to determine where the dead wood stops and living wood begins. The best way is to scratch the branch down to the cambium with your fingernail or small knife. If the cambium is green it’s live wood, if it’s brown and dry it’s dead. Go above the live wood to the first node and prune just below the node. The node is where new growth will start.
Crape myrtles are deciduous so the leaves will drop in the fall exposing the bark on the trunk and branches, which can be strikingly beautiful in their own right.
There are cultivars, Lagerstroemia fauriei among others, with multi-colored bark that peels in early summer exposing colors ranging from dark cinnamon to cream colored to bright orange, thus making the crapemyrtle a year-round beauty. What’s not to like?
With all plants, a bit of foresight can save a lot of work later. When selecting a crapemyrtle be sure to pick one that fits your yard.
As an astute gardener, the first question to ask at the nursery is “How do I know the mature size of this gorgeous crape myrtle I really like?” If the nursery personnel aren’t sure, help is just a keyboard away.
As usual, the University of Florida has it covered, go to: http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/mg266 for a definitive guide on crape myrtle sizes and shapes, common pests, and pruning tips.
Picking the right size will eliminate the need to constantly prune your crape myrtle and hopefully prevent what the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Science calls “crape murder.”
Crape murder is the process of chopping off the top of a tree making what is commonly called a “hat rack.” Hat racking refers to large branches cut off to keep the tree growth under control. This will also cause what is known as a “witches broom,” a sudden sprouting of dozens of shoots from a pruned limb.
Crape murder turns a beautiful plant into a hideous misshapen caricature of its original shape. Use the guide on the UF website to get the right plant for the right place so it looks like it was meant to be in your yard.
If you have time on your hands, pinch off the flower seeds once the flowers are gone. This will stimulate another flowering, but I gotta tell you, I started to pinch my crape myrtle seeds off and gave up after I pinched off a bazillion of the dark red seeds and was only half done. One bloom a year is just fine with me.
Got questions? We got answers. Contact the Extension Office on George Boulevard at 402-6540 or stop by in person between 9:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. If you have a question that may help others, submit it directly to Highlands News-Sun at firstname.lastname@example.org for possible publication.
Charlie Reynolds is a Highlands County Master Gardener. The articles presented here originate from visitors’ questions at the Master Gardener Help Desk.