Colorful Crape Myrtles can be found growing along Tufton Pond at Lake Monticello. Photo on right by Lynn Stayton-EurellAbelia, forsythia, quince, weigelia, kolkwitzia, eleagnous, rose of Sharon; these are the old fashioned shrubs which are the backbone of many gardens. None is more beautiful than the crape myrtles blooming right now. There are hundreds of selections available from 1’ to 100’, from white through shades of pink, red and purple. They come in all shapes from spiky ground covers, to weeping forms, upright and vase shaped. Many have four season interest with bright orange, red and burgundy fall foliage, sinewy limbs and exfoliating bark.
The colorful lagerstroemia, named after a Swedish merchant, was collected in China by a botanist for King Louis XVI, Andre Michaux, who brought the first plants to Charleston in the mid 1700s. Native to the Indian subcontinent, they do well in Virginia and throughout the South as they are drought tolerant, thrive in most soils and like heat and humidity. At the turn of the 20th century, during America’s ‘Gilded Age’, CF Sauer planted many which are still growing along Monument Avenue. Maymont mansion and gardens also had many varieties when it was gifted to the city by James and Sallie Dooley over 100 years ago.
Crape myrtles can be pruned many ways. In the past, people chopped the plant at 5 feet to produce a bushy affect. Today it is more popular to prune all but 3-7 stems and keep these stems clear to at least 5 feet, sometimes keeping a clear stem to 20 feet before allowing the crown to form. This will show off the muscular trunks and the dappled colors left by peeling bark. It is not necessary to prune the spent blooms but it will limit volunteers. Sometimes they are not pruned at all and a many stemmed bushy shape blooms prolifically.
When Japanese plants were introduced in the 1950s, plant breeders went to work. The US Arboretum has introduced over 30 new varieties with better mildew resistance and many more colors and sizes. Among the most popular is the large white ‘Natchez’; 30+’ with cinnamon exfoliating bark, good mildew resistance, and red/orange fall color. The mid size varieties, often given native American names, range in form from upright to weeping in all colors. ‘Peppermint Lace’, one of the few bi-colors, has deep pink crinkled flowers with white edging. From ‘Orchid Cascade’ to’ Pocomoke’ to the ‘Razzle Dazzle’ hybrids, dwarf crape myrtles fit better into smaller gardens. ‘Rosey Carpet’ is one of the shortest varieties topping out at 1 foot.
These plants are hard to kill and easy to grow. Any piece of root will produce a plant. They grow well from seed so new forms and colors are easy to hybridize. If you want the exact plant you see, take a 3-4 inch cutting, remove the lower leaves, dampen the stem, dip in Rootone, and place in a pot. With the rain this year, we are seeing a particularly bountiful display.