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In praise of crape myrtles

By By Gail Barton / horticulture columnist
Aug. 31, 2003
I noticed years ago, when I first became a gardener, that there were relatively few gardening books written by southerners and quite a few written by New Englanders.
As a southern gardener, it is hard not to feel deprived as these northern gardeners extol the virtues of some of the fine cold-hardy plants such as lilacs and rhododendrons.
I know a few gardeners who struggle to grow these two plants in Meridian, but they never seem to attain their full potential here in the heat and humidity. When I read these glowing descriptions of the lilacs and rhododendrons that grace the New England states, I often comfort myself with the vision of a crape myrtle in full bloom shimmering in the Mississippi summer heat.
The crape myrtle has become so prevalent in the southern landscape that many people forget that it is native to China and Korea. In fact, crape myrtles did not appear in England until 1759. Crapes are considered in the United States to be a southern plant because they are cold damaged if the temperature drops below 10 degrees Fahrenheit. This lack of cold tolerance confines the plant mostly to the states south of Tennessee.
There are at least 30 or 40 varieties of crape myrtle. Some have white, light pink, lavender or variegated blossoms. The miniature crape myrtle that was selected as the flower of the World's Fair in New Orleans can be maintained at a height of 2 feet. Most varieties, however, reach a height of 20 feet or more and can be trained by pruning to be a tree or a shrub.
Crape myrtles are an ideal plant for Mississippi. They can withstand drought and are tolerant of heavy clay soils. The crape myrtles are especially beautiful now in Meridian because they are in the midst of a July to September blooming cycle. Crape myrtles are most likely to have a crinkled and gaudy flower that is frequently described as "watermelon red."
The blooms are so prolific that the ground beneath a tree may look as if it has been strewn with confetti. This old fashioned "watermelon red" variety is so well adapted to the South that it will naturalize around old house sites and thrive in these spots where it may have been uncultivated for 20 years.
Crape myrtle is tough but it does have some pest problems. Aphids or plant lice attack the new growth in spring causing deformed leaves and leaving behind a sugary deposit called honeydew. The honeydew is the perfect medium for growing a black sooty mold that disfigures the leaves and remains on the plant long after the aphids have gone.
Powdery mildew causes a white dusty deposit and curling of the leaves. Both powdery mildew and sooty mold are more serious on plants grown in the shade.
In spite of the pests, I think crape myrtles are beautiful in all seasons. Most varieties have brilliant red, orange, or yellow fall color and the attractive growth habit of a multi-trunked small tree.
The branches have a muscular appearance and on older plants will naturally graft to one another making interesting branch formations.
To get the most enjoyment from a crape myrtle, avoid the two most common planting mistakes. Locate the plant where it has plenty of room and full sun. The sun will help minimize pest problems and maximize flowering.
The space will allow the plant to attain its natural graceful form. Under good growing conditions, many crape myrtle varieties can grow 3 feet or more in a year. Gardeners that plant crapes too close to the street or to other plants are forced to perform an annual butchering in which they hack the trunk down to ground level.
Now is the time to admire the flowering crape myrtles all over Meridian. While you admire, pity those poor New England gardeners deprived of crape myrtles.