Crepe Myrtles – Clay County Master Gardeners

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By: Eleanor Moyer, Extension Master Gardener℠ of Clay County

Over half a century ago, I had a disagreement with my mother-in-law who forcefully claimed that the lovely purple flowers blooming in July south of Atlanta were lilacs. By good fortune, I decided that her ignorance was no petard to hang my marriage on, so I kept quiet. My husband and I will celebrate our 57th anniversary this month, so perhaps it was a good decision! Those heavenly blooms were of course Crepe Myrtles (Lagerstroemia), the showy backbone of the summer southern garden.

Crepe Myrtles have so much going for them. There are wide varieties of size and color: white, pinks, reds, purples, even ones with dark, almost black leaves. The showy flowers have a long summer bloom period, fall brings colorful leaves and in winter mottled, exfoliating bark on multi-stem trunks colors up dramatically as the tree ages. How fortunate that they grow so well in our mountain community.

They originated in the Himalayans, Southeast Asia and India. The botanical name honors Magnus von Lagerstroem (1696-1759), a Swedish botanist who procured plants from India for his fellow naturalist Carl Linnaeus of classification fame. Most of the varieties grown are Lagerstroemia indica which specific epithet refers to its native country. Before purchasing a plant decide on its placement. Crepe Myrtles must grow in full sun. They thrive in well-draining, slightly acidic (5.5-7.0, what most of us have in our landscape) and moderately fertile soil. The full-grown size is an important detail. Planting a 30 ft tall and wide tree too close to the house will eventually damage both the tree and the building and perhaps cause you to commit “crepe murder,” the ubiquitous but inappropriate pruning of large trees creating stubby, gnarled  limbs. There are varieties from 3 feet to 40 feet with more coming to market each season so choose a plant size to fit the location. Plant your tree in a hole a good bit larger than the root ball. Keep it well watered the first year, then back off as they are relatively drought tolerant.

A quick perusal of the local highways and byways will convince you that they do not require much care. There are a few pests and diseases to be watchful for. The crepe myrtle aphid forms colonies on the underside of leaves. Their sticky secretions encourage black sooty mold. Lady beetles feast on the aphids, but some gardener attention may be required. Pesticides like bifenthrin and acephate control the aphids, but also destroy the lady beetles. An insecticidal soap spray may be a better first step. Powdery mildew is another problem. Breeding programs crossing L. indica with L. fauriei (Japanese crepe myrtle) have developed varieties with mildew resistance. Varieties with Native American names are among these. Check the plant tag and do a bit of research online before making a selection. NC Extension and Arboretum have excellent information.

I can’t end without admitting that a nickname for crepe myrtle is “Lilac of the South”, so it appears mother was right after all!