Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences
Hendry County Horticulture News
Crape Myrtle for Un-Rivaled Summer Color
Crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica) is one of our most versatile landscape plants for delightful summer color in sunny locations. Crape myrtle was introduced to the Southern United States over one hundred and fifty years ago. Its popularity continues today and it is grown world-wide in appreciation of its summer flowers. Sometimes called the "Lilac of the South", it has become associated in this country with Southern gardens and ante-bellum grandeur. Crape myrtle derives its common name from its crepe like, crinkled petals, and the resemblance of its leaves to the true myrtle, (Myrtus communis). Crape myrtle is native to China, Japan, and other parts of southeast Asia. Lagerstroemia indica has been cultivated there for centuries and was a favorite tree of Chinese emperors.
Crape myrtle provides landscape interest year-round.
Flowering begins as early as May and continues into the fall. Each 6- to
18-inch cluster of flowers (or panicle) develops on the tips of branches
and is composed of hundreds of one- to two-inch red, pink, white, lavender,
or purple flowers. The 1- to 4-inch long leaves are often tinged red in
the spring, dark green in the
summer, and turn yellow, orange or red in the autumn. When the leaves fall in winter, the crape myrtle becomes a living sculpture. The trunk and branches of tree-form plants have an attractively gnarled, sinuous character with smooth bark varying in color from pale cream to dark cinnamon to rich brown. Strips of bark peel off (exfoliate) in early summer to reveal mottled new bark ranging in color from tan to light pink to pale green.
Breeding and selection has resulted in plants of various sizes, shapes, flower colors, fall foliage colors, and bark characteristics. Crape myrtles are available for use as small trees, shrubs, ground covers, large perennial bedding plants and hanging baskets. Single- or multi-stemmed tree-form crape myrtles are ideal as flowering specimen trees or as small, flowering shade trees near patios, walkways, and entrances. Shrub-form crape myrtles make an excellent accent in a shrub border when planted in groups. Dwarf plants are effective as large ground covers or container plants providing vivid, summer-flowering interest. For best results and minimum maintenance, be sure to choose a cultivar whose growth characteristics and ultimate size fit your intended landscape use.
Background plantings of evergreens emphasize the floral display of crape myrtles. Dark colored mulches or dark green ground covers highlight the ornamental characteristics of crape myrtle trunks and bark.
Crape myrtle is adapted throughout Florida. Full sun is necessary for best flowering and for development of a full, symmetrical crown. Locations that allow air movement help to avoid potential problems with powdery mildew. Crape myrtle is tolerant of a wide range of soil types but grows poorly in wet soils. It does best in loamy soils that are slightly acid (pH 5.0 to 6.5).
Crape myrtle transplants easily. Best results
occur if container-grown crape myrtles are planted during early summer
when in active growth. Bare root or balled and burlapped crape myrtles
should be moved and planted while dormant. Plants should be mulched to
a depth of three inches. Newly planted crape myrtle should be irrigated
regularly for the first few weeks to aid in
establishment. Trees with a trunk diameter greater than one inch benefit from regular irrigation for several months. Crape myrtle is very drought tolerant once established but moist soils or irrigation stimulate growth.
Crape myrtle has low fertility requirements. Established plants usually do not need fertilizer. Growth of young crape myrtles may be stimulated with up to three applications per year of a complete ornamental fertilizer.
Young crape myrtle characteristically develop multiple stems. If a crape myrtle is to be grown as a small tree, the smallest stems should be removed leaving one main stem for a single-trunk specimen or two to four main stems for a multi-trunked tree.
Crape myrtle generally requires little pruning. "Suckers" or water sprouts should be removed when using crape myrtles as trees. Tip pruning to remove old flower clusters will promote recurrent blooming. The canopy should be kept open to allow air circulation and help prevent leaf diseases. If pruning is necessary to improve plant shape or form, prune crape myrtle anytime after the leaves have fallen. However if plants are pruned too early in the fall, new growth may emerge and be killed by the first freeze. The plants are easy to prune at this time since the branch structure is readily visible without foliage. Pruning while plants are dormant also will not interfere with flower bud formation since crape myrtle flowers on new growth. Avoid hat-racking, it spoils the beautiful winter branch structure on crape myrtle trees.
Crape myrtle can be one of the most pest-free landscape plants with proper cultivar selection and with proper siting. Primary pests are powdery mildew and the crape myrtle aphid with its associated sooty mold.
Gene McAvoy is the horticulture agent with the Hendry County Extension Service. Direct your horticulture questions to PO Box 68, LaBelle, FL 33975, e-mail - firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 863-674-4092 or 863-983-1598. You are also welcome to visit the Hendry County Extension Office at 225 Pratt Blvd., LaBelle. Office hours are from 8:00 - 5:00.
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