'Tis the season for crape myrtle

Hot weather doesn't faze crape myrtle.

When watching the Olympics over the weekend, I was interested to see crape myrtle shrubs lining a portion of the route of the women’s marathon. I’d heard all the talk about Beijing’s typical high summer temperatures, and this brought it home to me – crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia) loves hot weather.

That’s one of a trio of main requirements for successfully growing them. The second is planting in a location with full sun. Not sun part of the day or partial sun all day, but all sun all the time. Otherwise, it won’t bloom well.

The third crape myrtle necessity is also temperature-related: winter temperatures no lower than zero degrees F. (and higher is better). That means living in Zone 6b and higher. Zone 7 is more reliable. (Hopi is the variety that's often considered the most cold-tolerant.)

Well, I guess there’s a fourth thing to think about when choosing and planting a crape myrtle – space. These aren’t tiny plants. Although there are a handful of “dwarfs” – which grow less than five feet tall – most crape myrtles end up in the 10- to 30-foot range, and some can climb to more than 35 feet high over a period of years.

When I lived in the South, I saw some of those really big ones as wide as they were tall and covered with blooms. Wow!

But as impressive as they were, the older varieties of crape myrtle had some problems: They weren’t cold-tolerant, they mildewed easily, and leaves sometimes became covered with black spots. Most also grew too large for ordinary yards.

Those drawbacks are mostly a thing of the past, thanks to breeding done by Dr. Don Egolf at the National Arboretum, who pretty much revolutionized crape myrtles. He released about 30 cultivars that have greater cold-resistance, are mostly tolerant of mildew, and grow to varying sizes.

Most also begin blooming earlier than the older types and continue much longer. This is a real bonus, because it means a crape myrtle can be in flower in your yard almost all summer and even into the fall.

Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service has an excellent chart comparing the varieties available to homeowners. (Remember that it was developed for South Carolinians, so the hardiness ratings may not be as applicable in colder climates.)

When you shop, it will help to keep in mind that the National Arboretum crape myrtles have Indian names – from Chickasaw to Yuma.

Want to see what the various varieties look like? The Clemson site has a photo gallery arranged by color: white, pink, dark pink, lavender, fuchsia, red, and purple and burgundy.

Most homeowners don’t understand how (and when) to prune crape myrtle and so these shrubs/trees are often butchered. Here are good instructions. You can even watch a Power Point presentation.

In the dog days of August, gardeners are grateful for any plant that can be relied on to provide bursts of color to the yard without a lot of work. Crape myrtle is one of the best.

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