January 25, 2017

Considering the Much Maligned Crapemyrtle!

Even those that don’t have much of an appreciation of plants and flowers are likely to stop, stare, and admire the beauty and variety of color exhibited by the Crapemyrtle during the hot months of summer.  A standard in the southern landscape, Lagerstroemia indica has, for all its glory and ornamental value, become the “whipping boy” of many who confuse mutilation with well-meaning care.  It is almost as if folks make it their News Year’s resolution to cut Crapemyrtles down to size, leaving chopped-off stalky sentinels where very often a stately tree once stood.  The Georgia Gardener, Walter Reeves, coined the phrase “Crape Murder!” many years ago, and those of us that know better have spent many years trying to turn the tide on this malpractice and let people know that the trees don’t have to be cut back to nubs to look good.  Many of us have found out to our consternation that perception has been misconstrued as truth.


The oppression and confusion about this poor plant goes right back to the spelling of the name itself, for there are many and who really knows which one is correct?  One might think of the delicately folded flowers and call the tree “Crepe” Myrtle, after the paper they resemble.  Then there is the controversy over whether it is two words or just one?  Crepe Myrtle? Crepemyrtle? Crape Myrtle? Crapemyrtle?  To put an end to this controversy I defer to Dr. Michael Dirr of the University of Georgia, who uses the common name “Crapemyrtle”.   Done.


Lagerstroemia indica is native to China and Korea and was introduced to Charleston, SC in 1790 because of the spectacular flowers the plant produces.  Lagerstroemia fauriei is the Japanese Crapemyrtle that is known more for its colorful peeling bark.  In the 1950’s a specimen of L. fauriei was sent to the National Arboretum in Washington D.C. where Dr. Donald Egolf set to work crossing the two species and selecting seedlings with promising ornamental characteristics.  The fruits of this labor are many of the cultivated varieties of Crapemyrtle that we see today, including the National Arboretum Selections:  plants selected not only for flowers but also for highly ornamental bark, as well as resistance to many of the pest problems that plagued L. indica: Aphids, Powdery Mildew, Sooty Mold, and Leaf Spot.  (Other pests that may be attracted to Crapemyrtles to which they are not resistant include Japanese beetle and Ambrosia Beetle.)  These selections were named after Native American Tribes: Muscogee, Natchez, Tuscarora, Osage, Sioux, Pocomoke, and others.  A magnificent specimen of L. fauriei can be found at the Atlanta Botanical Garden, and opposite the Great Lawn there is a beautiful alee of ‘Natchez’ Crapemyrtle.  Crapemyrtle hybridization has continued through the decades at the National arboretum and elsewhere- new and different varieties are introduced almost annually.


Why the butchery?

My involvement in the landscape industry stretches over 35 years.  My first recollection of ‘Crape Murder’ goes back to the mid-1980.  I think the practice started with bored landscape gardeners looking for something to fill the down time in January.  While it might seem more appropriate to present something on Crapemyrtles in the summer, when the plants are in glorious bloom, we arborists are destined to present at this time of year, when we see all over the city what were formerly graceful arching branches displaying the dried fruits of last year’s bloom, reduced to large sticks emanating from the earth, topped with knuckles from the plundering cuts of previous years, balled up as if to make a fist with which to punch the offending person wielding the pruner! Another possible explanation for the horticultural malfeasance referred to previously harkens back to a decades-old conflict between those that want a “mature look” in their landscape quickly and those that would select plants for the long term.  Proponents of the school of fast growth have in the past made popular such plants as Red-Tip Photinia, Bradford Pear, and Leyland Cypress.  The rapid growth of such plants made them desirable to give a property the appearance of establishment, and yet problems came along as these plants overgrew their designated space.  This same notion could be the reason that so many Crapemyrtles have become the victim of the lopper and chainsaw- the wrong variety is chosen to fit a given space when the plant achieves its mature size.  The plethora of new varieties of Crapemyrtle that have been developed over the years provide a proper plant for nearly every sunny situation.


It is our hope that reading this will motivate you to put those loppers and saws away (except perhaps to remove that ill-suited variety of Crapemyrtle you have in there now (or better yet- let Downey Trees, Inc. do the removal for you!). The chart below lists a sampling of the varieties that are available.  Information is presented on the variety, flower color, and mature size of the plant.  Keep in mind that a Crapemyrtle often grows as wide as it does tall.  A little extra research on your part at the nursery or on the internet will provide more information about other ornamental characteristics such as bark and fall color.


Crapemyrtle Variety Flower Color Mature Size
‘Natchez’ White 20 feet plus
‘Muscogee’ Lavender 20 feet plus
‘Dynamite’ Red 20 feet
‘Sioux’ Vibrant Pink 10-20 feet
‘Osage’ Clear Pink 10-20 feet
‘Black Diamond Blush’ White-Lt. Pink 10 feet
‘Tonto’ Red 10 feet
‘Catawba’ Violet Purple 10 feet
‘Plum Magic’ Fuchsia Pink 10 feet
‘Strawberry Dazzle’ Neon Rose 5 feet
‘Sweetheart Dazzle’ True Pink 4 feet
‘Diamond Dazzle’ White 3 feet
‘Ruby Dazzle’ Pink 2-3 feet


Whether talking about Crapemyrtles, Crepe Myrtles, or Crepemyrtles, always remember that mature size matters.  As you now know, there is a variety that will fit nearly every garden situation.  Color, form, and interesting bark can be provided by this plant regardless of the limitations of garden space.   We hope this will help you pick a Crapemyrtle for your landscape that won’t become the whipping boy of your yard-mutilated and maligned like so many in the southern landscape!

January 25, 2017