Crape Myrtle, Lagerstroemia, offers bright color and happiness wherever it is planted. One of the most beautiful ornamental trees in all seasons, Crepe Myrtle is especially loved in coastal Virginia. Our Crepe Myrtle, one of over 50 species, is the Lagerstroemia indica, originally from China and Korea. It is hardy as far north as Zone 6.
In fact, the streets of Norfolk, Virginia, are lined with beautiful Crepe Myrtle trees, a project of the much loved Fred Huette. Mr. Huette began the Norfolk Botanical gardens in 1936 with WPA money from the federal government, and spent the rest of his career beautifying the city of Norfolk with his staff and many, many, volunteers from Norfolk garden clubs. Driving through the streets of Norfolk today one is mesmerized by the beauty of thousands of Crepe Myrtle trees lining its streets.
Mr. Huette, who went on to be appointed the Superintendent of Norfolk’s city parks, understood the impact the trees make when planted uniformly along a street. He sent his staff to plant two Crepe Myrtle trees in front of the home of any city resident who would allow it. Since they were all the same color, and many planted at roughly the same time along a given street, they make a spectacular show today, some 80 years later.
Still popular throughout the area, residents today have a wide choice of cultivars from which to choose. Crepe Myrtles are available in many different sizes and colors. The newest hybrids are dwarf shrubs which can grow in a pot, and stay under 4’ high even when planted out in the garden. The largest Crepe Myrtle cultivars of L. indica top out around 30’.
McDonald’s Garden Center, based in Hampton, VA, offers its customers a Crepe Myrtle Festival each July, right at the end of the active season for buying summer plants. For the past 23 years, customers have collected “Myrtle Money” from purchases earlier in the season to spend at the festival, which is a high point of the summer in Tidewater.
Thanks in part to their promotion of this beautiful plant, Crepe Myrtle trees are a familiar sight along city streets from Virginia Beach to Williamsburg. Used extensively by VDOT for beautifying median strips, they are also found in neighborhoods, shopping centers, apartment complexes, and around public buildings.
Originally from Asia, the first Crepe Myrtle tree was imported through Charleston SC in 1790 by French botanist Andre Michaux. The largest species, L. speciosa, originally from tropical India, can only be grown in the southernmost parts of Florida, Texas, California, and in Hawaii. It can grow to nearly 70’ tall. L. indica is the common species found throughout much of the southern United States north of Zone 9.
Crepe Myrtles produce flowers in white, red, many shades of pink, lavender, and purple. All of the flowers are relatively small, but grow in large panicles which cover the tree in late summer and early fall. The orange stamens are more visible in some cultivars than in others. Sometimes called, “The tree of 100 days,” Crepe Myrtle will bloom between 90 and 110 days each summer depending on the cultivar.
Crepe Myrtle, although not native to North America, has naturalized in many areas, and is an excellent tree in a wildlife garden. They self seed easily and grow along the sunny edge of the forest in my ravine. They are much loved by birds for perching, nesting, and feasting on seeds in winter and insects in summer. Butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds visit their flowers. They are rarely touched by deer.
Though beautiful, the flowers can make a mess when they fall in heavy rain. It is best to avoid planting the trees where they will shed onto a driveway or other area where cars are parked. Spent flowers can be annoying on walkways near the house where they can be tracked inside on shoes.
Similarly, the bark exfoliates as the tree grows. This makes for beautiful stems, but the gardener may wish to clean up the fallen bark.
Crepe Myrtles can be trained to a single trunk, but many cultivars prefer to grow as a multi-stemmed shrub. Suckers form from around the base of the plant each summer and are usually trimmed off.
Some gardeners indulge in a particular form of Crepe Myrtle cruelty by heavily pruning the tree each winter. Often done to control size, this heavy pruning leaves the tree looking like an amputee all spring as the tree struggles to produce new branches. Crepe Myrtle flowers on new wood each season. It is a fast grower, especially when the summer is wet.
Better to purchase a cultivar which will grow to the size required than to butcher the tree annually to control size. The grace and beauty of the tree’s natural shape is completely lost. The tree can still be cut back an thinned in late winter or early spring, but severe coppicing is unsightly and ultimately weakens the tree.
On smaller trees, spent flowers can be trimmed back in late summer before seeds form to encourage another flush of flowering. This extends the season of bloom into September. Once seed heads form, they linger throughout the winter months. They can be left to feed hungry birds in winter, or can be snipped off of smaller trees without interfering with the beauty of the branches.
The beauty of Crepe Myrtle extends into the winter months. Although somewhat brittle, they are open and sculptural enough to be a good support for white lights during the holidays and into the new year.
Plant Crepe Myrtle in sun or part sun in any well drained soil. They are widely adaptable. Crepe Myrtle is a tough tree. Although fall is considered the best season to establish new trees and shrubs in our area, potted Crepe Myrtle trees can be planted most any time. Water well during dry spells for the first year or two until they establish good roots. Fertilize in early spring with Espona’s Plant Tone organic fertilizer. Newly planted trees also respond well to Neptune’s Harvest mixed in a dilute solution every few weeks. Neptune’s Harvest, poured over a small tree or shrub, is a good foliar feed and offers additional minerals to encourage early growth.
Powdery mildew will afflict some cultivars during especially hot and humid weather. Newer hybrids, especially the ‘Fauriei Hybrids’ (with the Native American Indian tribal names) are resistant to mildew; are strong growers; and have good fall color and beautiful bark.
This group includes Natchez (white), Muskogee (light lavender), Tuscarora
(deep watermelon pink), Tonto (deep watermelon red), Arapaho (deep red), Sioux ( intense pink), Catawba ( purple),
A remarkable tree, Crepe Myrtle adds beauty and drama to the garden throughout the year. Planting one is a loving gesture to all who will admire it and to all of the garden creatures who will enjoy its shelter and nectar for decades to come.
All photos by Woodland Gnome taken in Williamsburg and James City Co. Virginia
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