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Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Crape Myrtles

Pay no attention to the girl making the funny face. It's the trees behind and above her you should look at. Aren't they lovely? Those are a staple of the southern landscape, Crape Myrtles. Hold on and I'll tell you all about them.

How to grow Crape Myrtle

Lagerstroemia,  is the botanical name for the tall shrub or small tree, native of Asia commonly called the Crape (or Crepe) Myrtle.  This plant gets its common name from the flowers which have the crinkled appearance of crepe paper but what makes this plant particularly  outstanding for the landscape is its year-round appeal and the fact that it blooms continuously for up to six months out of the year.

A very common occurrence especially in the southeastern United States, Crape Myrtle can be seen profusely planted along highways, around many commercial buildings, predominantly displayed at botanical gardens and in virtually every home garden. And with good reason. It is a lovely sight to behold whether in or out of bloom. Its flowers coming in all shades of pink, lavender, red and white can last an astonishing length of time and if that weren’t enough it has a lovely smooth gray bark which exfoliates to reveal striking colors of pink, orange and brown. The foliage is a bright green and in the warmest places, though it is technically deciduous, may never lose them.

The Crape Myrtle can be pruned into almost any shape desired and is particularly suited to the gardening arts of espalier and  Bonsai. When young it assumes a shrub like shape with long arching branches. If carefully pruned it can be maintained this way for foundation planting or even for a hedge but for the most part it does best as a single specimen in a sunny location and allowed to assume a very attractive V-shaped multi-stemmed tree form . Some Crape Myrtle can grow upwards of 30 feet but many modern cultivars sold today are considerably smaller, some only reaching 2 -3 feet tall, perfect for the small garden with limited space.

The Japanese Crape Myrtle, L. fauriei, is cold hardy in USDA zones 7-9. This forms an upright growing tree 20-30 feet tall with very graceful arching branching and white flowers growing in 2-4 inch long clusters. The 4 inch long, 2 inch wide leaves are a light green which turn a pretty yellow in autumn. The bark is smooth and gray but as it matures it flakes away to show the glossy cinnamon colored bark underneath. This one is also resistant to mildew.

L. indica is a much showier Crape Myrtle with large clusters of blossoms in a wide range of vibrant colors. The foliage is a dark green and about half the size than of those of  the Japanese Crape Myrtle, only 1-2  inches long and not as wide. They do have a rather lovely red first-spring color which can turn a bright orange or red in autumn. The flowers are 1-2 inches wide growing in dense clusters that cover the entire plant for months and months of endless color. If left on the tree these will become green capsules in which grow the tiny seeds. When the seed pods turn brown they erupt sending the seeds any-which-way. They do not, however, become invasive.

L. speciosa, the Queen Crape Myrtle, is called this for a very good reason. It can grow as tall as 80 feet high, the leaves are 8-12 inches long and 4 inches wide and the white to purple flowers grow in clusters a whopping 16 inches long. Not as cold hardy as the others but extremely impressive looking.

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