Crape Myrtle (Often misspelled Crepe Myrtle) is a flowering tree that comes in a wide variety of flower colors and heights. Often used in southern landscapes, Crape Myrtles are great as stand alone specimens or in groups for mid to late summer color. They have amazing large clusters of flowers with colors of white, pink, purple, and red with all shades in between. Many new introductions that have amazing foliage color as well as dwarf varieties that are used as small shrubs have been released recently. Heights range from 3 foot shrubs to 30 foot specimen trees. Many of the varieties were introduced from the breeding program of Dr. Egolf at the National Arboretum forty years ago. Many of those varieties are still considered the best for resistance to powdery mildew and show the best exfoliating bark.
Crape Myrtles are tolerant of most soil conditions and are very drought resistant once established. The planting hole should be at least twice the width of the container. Mix organic material like composted pine bark or peat moss 50/50 with the existing soil. The plant should be raised slightly above the surrounding soil to allow for drainage. Backfill the hole, water thoroughly, and add a generous layer of mulch to help moderate moisture fluctuations and to insulate against winter injury. The larger the area that is mulched the better the tree will perform. Crape Myrtles grown in the lawn are always less vigorous than those that are given adequate space around the roots.
Fertilizing and pruning of Crape Myrtles should occur in spring or early summer. Slow release fertilizers are best, because they give an extended feeding without the risk of burning the plant. Late summer or fall feeding will make the plant put on a flush of growth that can result in winter injury.
Beautiful Trunk on Crape MyrtlePruning of the dwarf varieties is easily done with shears in the early spring. Pruning of the tree forms is more difficult and has become the subject of local governments. Many times they are cut to eight feet in height and the resulting growth is spindly and weepy. Someone termed the word “Crape-murder” to describe this practice. Most of the tree form varieties should simply be thinned as needed to allow for good air circulation. If the practice of cutting the top out every year is used, eventually the trunk will become so large that the tree looks awkward. With so many varieties available, just pick one that fits the height and width of the area and the radical pruning will be unnecessary. Pruning off spent flowers in July will result in additional flowers in late summer.
Full sun is best on Crape Myrtles. They need to dry quickly in the morning and any shade will increase powdery mildew problems. Plants placed in the shade are often leggy and have very thin foliage. Water is key for heavy flowering. Additional water should be applied in early summer when buds become visible. Crape Myrtles are very drought tolerant, but if they become stressed during flowering they will shut down quickly. Placing a hose that is barely on at the base of the plant and letting the water soak into the soil for a couple of hours is the best way to ensure adequate watering.
Popular Varieties of Standard Crepe Myrtles
- ‘Muskogee’ – Lavender flowers with a gray trunk. Reaches 20 plus feet in height. Introduced by the National Arboretum.
- ‘Tuscarora’ – Watermelon-red flowers with a light brown trunk. Reaches 20 plus feet in height. Introduced by the National Arboretum.
- ‘Natchez’ – The most popular white variety with a cinnamon-colored trunk. Reaches 20 plus feet in height. Introduced by the National Arboretum.
- ‘Tuskegee’ – Dark pink flowers with a gray trunk. Reaches 20 plus feet in height. Introduced by the National Arboretum.
- ‘Dynamite’ – Newer introduction with dark red flowers. Reaches 20 plus feet in height. Introduced by Dr. Carl Whitcomb. New growth is red. This variety is patented.
- ‘Carolina Beauty’ – Pinkish-red variety that reaches 20 feet in height.
- ‘Miami’ – Coral-pink flowers. Reaches 20 plus feet in height. Introduced by the National Arboretum.