In the Dirt: Myrtle Magic

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By Ray Greenstreet

In the Dirt Photo 2-- Purple Crepe MyrtleCrape myrtle. Or crepe myrtle. Or just myrtles. Or if you prefer Latin, lagerstroemia. By any name, its abundant blossoms are the bright spot in the July landscape.

This all-American plant is actually a transplant, brought here in 1790 by Andre Michaux, a French botanist. On our shores, it was first planted in Charleston, South Carolina where it thrived despite the heat and humidity. It grew in popularity and, after more than 200 years of cultivation, there are an enormous number of varieties available to today’s gardener. And those summer flowers we so love range in colors from classic white to deep red, with almost every shade in between.

In the Dirt Photo 3-- Red Crepe MyrtleTreasured mainly for those flowers, crape myrtles are an all-season plant. Most varieties have brilliant fall foliage, and the mottled bark provides lovely winter interest. Some modern cultivars like “Red Rocket” have burgundy-tinged foliage, lending color to the landscape even before it begins to flower. An added bonus: crape myrtles are usually deer resistant. I say usually because if they’re hungry enough, deer will nibble anything. However, for the most part, they find something else more to their liking.

Crape myrtles are easy to grow in our area, but we are at the northern-most limit of its winter hardiness. These are true southerners, disliking long hard winters.

The most common complaint we hear about crape myrtles is that they get “too big” for where they’ve been planted. Rather than chopping the tree to fit the space (more on pruning later), choose the cultivar that best suits the space you have.  They range in size from a true dwarf (3 to 6 feet) and grow all the way up from there, some varieties easily reaching 30 feet.  Choose the plant that will not outgrow its boundaries and will be allowed to grow, displaying its natural, graceful habit with minimal pruning.

In the Dirt Photo 1-- Crepe MyrtleMoreover, about that pruning. Crape myrtles do not require heavy pruning. Somewhere along the line, somebody started the practice of hacking off the tops of the tree, leaving nothing but stumps atop a trunk. Some people think this is necessary for the tree to flower, others do so because the plant has outgrown its space; others just see others doing it and think they need to do the same. We call this Myrtle Murder. Please resist. There are some cases where heavy pruning is necessary – for example where there has been storm damage. But in most cases a light pruning is all that is needed. All crape myrtles produce flowers on new growth. It will produce flowers without any pruning, but light pruning results in larger and more abundant blooms. Prune in late winter or early spring before new growth emerges. Remove any damaged branches, those that are rubbing against one another, and shoots growing into the center of the canopy. To train as a multi-trunked tree, remove branches from the ground up to desired level, usually a couple of feet. This is called “limbing up.” Crape myrtles naturally “shed” old bark throughout the growing season (this is not a sign of a sick tree). As the bark peels off, it reveals the smooth, mottled inner bark. I’ve heard it described as “polished tortoise shell” and that this is one of the best features of the crape myrtle.

If leftover seed heads bother your sense of aesthetics, it’s ok to remove them, but doing so won’t encourage more blooms. Once it matures, allow nature to take its course. The seeds will drop, the plant will bloom and you will fully enjoy the natural grace of the plant.

Crape myrtles need full sun and average water, about an inch or so a week will do it. If you plant in the fall or early winter, lay down a layer of mulch to blanket the roots through the first winter. Come spring, remove the mulch and top dress with some compost or fertilizer.

These versatile plants have a place in just about every landscape. Choose a cultivar to fit the space, and it will give you years of enjoyment.