Planting and enjoying crepe myrtles

These are the dog days of summer, and most flowering trees and shrubs have finished their peak of bloom long ago. Not so with the crepe myrtle. Just when it seems we must turn to leaves and bark for the color, the bright, ruffled blooms of the crape myrtle burst into pink, lavender and white all over southern gardens, parks and home-landscapes.

Most of our crepe myrtle plants are made up of Lagerstromia indica and faurei. Crape myrtle, also known as “Flower of the South,” is a favorite small tree or large shrub and performs beautifully in most parts of North Carolina.

It is often rare for a flowering plant to have several landscape characteristics which can be as interesting as the flower. Crepe myrtle possesses several, such as flowers, bark color and texture, form and shape, fall foliage, color, and interesting seed pods which persist in the winter. L. faurei has beautiful exfoliating bark. When this plant matures, its smooth, grey-green bark peels away to reveal patches of warm, cinnamon colored new bark for a great visual effect.

Crepe myrtle has many landscape uses. Because the ultimate height is that of a small tree (below 30 feet) and the roots can exist in a somewhat restricted area, the crepe myrtle is ideal for use under utility lines and between a sidewalk and the street. They do very well in large planter boxes. Many homeowners use the crepe myrtle as a specimen tree in a garden setting, often under planted with a groundcover. When located in a shrub bed about the house as a “foundation planting.” The tree should be set at least 10 feet from the walls, several new introductions of true dwarfs can be used in plants as a small, flowering deciduous shrub.

The ideal planting site would be one with well-drained soil, full sunny exposure and good air drainage. Crepe myrtles do not flower well in partial shade and not at all in heavy shade. Powdery mildew is a serious disease problem, but this can be minimized by locating in an open area where air movement will not be restricted.

Crepe myrtles grow well in most heavy loam and clay soils of the piedmont to our sandy soils here in near the North Carolina coast and tolerate a pH range of 5.0 to 6.5. Nutrient requirements are generally minimal. Two light applications of a complete fertilizer in spring and summer are adequate. With heavy fertilizer applications the plant flower less, produce lush vegetative growth and are subject to winter injury.

Crepe myrtles have a shallow fibrous root system and should be planted in a slightly raised manner. The best planting time is early fall, so the roots can become established prior to summer blooming. Spring and summer are also times to plant.

Crepe myrtles can be grown as large or small single or multi-stem deciduous shrubs. The lower weaker branches can be removed in the early stages. The flowers are borne terminally on the current season’s growth. Crepe myrtles can be drastically pruned if needed, but can lose the natural, graceful effect if pruned several feet off the ground.

Flower colors range from dark red, rose, pink and lavender to white. The growth habit categories are listed dwarf – less than 3 feet to tall – more than 12 feet with some reaching 45 feet tall.

When planning to landscape with a crepe myrtle, be sure you know where you are going to plant it. Think about how large/small you want it and what color you would like. I suggest you purchase the size you want so that you don’t have to prune in order to keep that size.

If you need suggestions or additional information on any of your gardening questions, feel free to call Nancy Olsen at the Bladen County Cooperative Extension 910-862-4591.