HOW DOES YOUR GARDEN GROW
By Kit Flynn
This is the time of year I begin muttering that the crapemyrtle is the most abused tree in the Triangle—and I am not just talking about that barbaric practice known as “crape murder.” This tree is more often than not poorly situated in the landscape, a sorry condition that is most obvious during the summer months when the trees are in bloom. A correctly planted crapemyrtle is an object of beauty; a poorly sited crapemyrtle is sadly pathetic.
Before we explore the reasons for my crabbiness, let’s discuss the name and spelling, whether it’s crape myrtle, crepe myrtle, or crapemyrtle. Michael Dirr in his 1998 Manual of Woody Landscape Plants refers to “crapemyrtle” as do most university horticulturalists. The horticultural argument is this: It should be “crapemyrtle” because it’s not a myrtle, just as the horsechestnut is not a chestnut and the mayapple isn’t an apple.
The genus Lagerstroemia originated in China, Japan, Korea, and Australia. Arriving from England in 1786, the Lagerstroemia indica quickly embraced the southern heat and humidity, becoming one of the most popular trees in the South. However, this crapemyrtle had one problem: It was extremely susceptible to powdery mildew.
In a search to solve the powdery mildew problem, hybridizers sought to breed L. indica with other species in an effort to influence bloom color, disease tolerance, and bark characteristics. In the 1960s, the National Arboretum chose L. fauriei in this hybridization process because, while it wasn’t as showy, it was a bit hardier than L. indica and, more importantly, it was resistant to powdery mildew.
The resulting new hybrids proved to be resistant to powdery mildew, thereby opening up the crapemyrtle market. These hybrids went on to produce new hybrids, ones that received Native American names, such as “Natchez,” “Tonto” and “Muskogee.” Scientifically speaking, the name for these hybrids is L. indica x L. fauriei.
There are now four recognized sizes of crapemyrtles on the market today: dwarf—under 5 feet; semi-dwarf—between 5 and 12 feet; intermediate—13-20 feet (“Tonto”); and tree-type—23-33 feet (“Natchez”). Provided you have a sunny area, there truly is a crapemyrtle for everyone.
These are specimen trees, ones that should be viewed from all four sides. Consequently, they should not be planted by another object, whether it’s a house, a telephone pole or a tree. No crapemyrtle should be squished into a tight space. Because they require full sun, these are not understory trees like our native dogwood, Cornus florida. Overhead power lines and crapemyrtles do not mix. That pathetic median (a.k.a., a swale) between the street and the sidewalk is not an appropriate place for a crapemyrtle.
Because there is such a large array of crapemyrtles on the market, it is necessary to research the tree before buying it. There is no excuse planting “Natchez” when you only have room for an intermediate one. There is a very informative chart here.
Now crapemyrtles need a bit of grooming if they are going to look their best. The wood is wonderful to behold but is often hidden by suckers coming up from the roots. Consequently, an amazing number of crapemyrtles look downright frumpy. I often think the Queen of Hearts really said, “Off with their bloomers!” rather than “Off with their heads.” Okay, I did get a bit carried away. Just allow the crapemyrtle to proudly display its lovely wood by removing the suckers.
As for the abysmal practice of “crape murder”—in two words, please don’t. Plant the right cultivar, allowing it to display its symmetry. By committing crape murder, you’re giving this handsome tree the look of leprosy for five months of the year. After the leprosy stage, it will grow spindly branches, giving the tree the shape of a lollipop when next in bloom. The tree has lost its proportion with the new branches barely able to support the large blooms.
Can a tree survive crape murder? Those that have developed a thick knuckle through continual murderous practices need to be removed as the knuckles are ugly and will never achieve the lovely grace of a natural crapemyrtle. Southern Living suggests cutting the tree to the ground, thereby allowing the developed root system to support the new growth. Thin the multiple suckers on a regular basis and supposedly within 3-5 years you will have a refurbished crapemyrtle.
I’m not suggesting that crapemyrtles shouldn’t be pruned and limbed up. I have two “Tonto” cultivars in my back yard and we routinely take out the lighter branches. We do this because the large blooms in a rain storm can weigh down the branches to such an extent that they cause the weaker ones to break off.
Crapemyrtles are such lovely additions to our landscape. By following a couple of basic rules, they will give the garden a magical lift during our hottest months. Mistreat them and they will distract from the garden. It really isn’t a hard choice to make.
After being an active member of the Durham County Extension Master Gardeners for 13 years, Kit Flynn now holds emeritus status. For five years she was the gardening correspondent for “Senior Correspondent” and shared “The Absentee Gardener” column with fellow Master Gardener Lise Jenkins. She has given numerous presentations on various gardening topics to Triangle organizations and can be reached at email@example.com.