Crape Myrtles

Versatile flowering shrub provides four-season interest

Crape Myrtle

Beloved in the South, crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica) is a wonderful perennial deciduous shrub or small tree that provides landscape interest year around, requires minimal attention, and doesn't usually suffer from insects or disease. The long-blooming beautiful flowers appear in midsummer and last throughout the fall giving way to a colorful autumn show. As the leaves drop, depending on the variety, the plant displays its interesting exfoliating bark.

The crape myrtle has been planted in Dixie around homes and along roadways for decades. However, as new varieties have been developed, its range has grown as gardeners have incorporated it into landscapes in more northern climates.

Like many of our best loved plants, the crape myrtle is also a native of Asia. Small plants and cuttings found their way to England and then to the United States during the latter 18th and early 19th centuries.

Cultivating

The crape myrtle is hardy in zones 7–9. It may be grown as a single spectacular specimen tree that can be freely admired from all sides or as a dwarf variety shrub used in a foundation planting around your home. Trees can be more than 20 feet tall.

Even though it can take partial shade, grow your crape myrtle in full sun if possible. Too much shade inhibits flowering. Good air circulation on all sides can mitigate the few problems crape myrtles might have.

Evenly moist, well draining soil facilitates rapid growth, but once firmly established, it can tolerate drought. It prefers fairly acidic soil. If yours is on the limey side, compost with pine needles to drive the pH down to about 5.5–6.0, though it's reasonably tolerant in either direction of this range.

If your soil is rich and healthy, regular fertilizing may not be needed. Typically, if fertilizing is required, a light application of a high-quality balanced fertilizer should be all that's needed.

Crape myrtles have a long bloom period that runs from July to late October, sometimes more than 120 days. The large flower clusters are available in shades of white, pinks, crimson, corals, and lavender.

Planting or transplanting

Like many other shrubs, dig a hole about twice as wide as the root ball but no deeper. It's generally a good idea to err on the shallow side. Place your crape myrtle and back fill with soil. Mulch well to retain moisture, then water thoroughly.

Though pruning is not necessarily needed, it could benefit from removing twiggy growth and crossing branches, to ensure its naturally airy shape and force growth to its strongest branches.

Pruning

Crape myrtles need relatively little pruning. In fact, to promote the appearance and vigor of your plant, prune only to thin, shape, or remove damaged or dead growth.

They bloom on current season's growth, so you can deadhead spent blooms to encourage another round of bloom. Don't prune late in the season as this promotes growth when the plant should be going dormant for winter. Tender new shoots are likely to suffer and die once winter sets in.

It's better to choose the correct cultivar for the location than to rely on pruning, which can spoil the beautiful natural effect that a crape myrtle can contribute to your landscape.

Propagation

You can propagate a crape myrtle several different ways. Collect seeds from pods that have been left to dry on the tree, take cuttings, or layer.

The seeds are left after the bloom period is completed. You can propagate additional plants by harvesting the seeds and germinating them between damp layers of paper towel.

In May or June, it's easy to take softwood cuttings and root them in water. Because they are so easy to start, rooting hormone is optional. Also, layering works well. Bend a lower branch to the ground. About 6–12 inches from the tip of the branch scrape the wood to remove the protective bark. Bury the exposed branch and weight it down with a brick or heavy rock, but leave the branch tip with some of it's foliage exposed. Small roots will form where it's buried. By autumn, you should be able to cut the branch from the mother plant and transplant to its new location.

Later in the season, from midsummer to early autumn, you can take semi-hardwood cuttings. Semi-hardwood is the current seasons growth but after it's hardened. The wood is firm and foliage is full sized.

Plant young starts and cuttings in fresh potting soil and keep them evenly moist. Protect from wind and freezing temperatures. Transplant to desired location in the spring.

Pests and problems

Powdery mildew is one of the biggest problems afflicting crape myrtles. To prevent it, plant in sun with plenty of room for air to circulate and select varieties known to be resistant.

Sooty mold fungus is another common problem. Sticky excretions from aphids attracts this mold, which can become so thick that the plant deteriorates as a result of not being able to conduct photosynthesis. To control the aphids, spray with water and use predators like lady bugs and lace wings, and, when selecting plants, look for aphid-resistant varieties. You can wash sooty mold away by throwing soapy dishwater on the plant and then rinsing with clean water.


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