How to grow and care for crepe myrtle
With a size to suit any space, a handsome canopy of foliage and an awesome summer flowering display, the crepe myrtle deserves everyone’s attention.
What you need to know about crepe myrtle
Name: crepe (or crape) myrtle (various Lagerstroemia species, crosses and hybrids)
Plant type: small deciduous tree, often fast growing
Height: to 6–8m, width variable. Dwarf forms available.
Foliage: oval-shaped with a definite pointed end, colour variable with variety but older L. indica forms tend to be glossy green above and creamy green below, with obvious veins. In autumn leaves colour up to buttery yellows, oranges and vibrant reds.
Climate: tropics, sub-tropics, warm temperate and sheltered areas of cool temperate.
Soil: good quality, free-draining with reliable moisture, especially during summer.
Position: full sun with wind protection.
Flowering: mid to late summer, depending on region and variety. Colours include white, pinks, mauves and reds.
Feeding: annual application of controlled-release fertiliser in spring.
Watering: younger trees may require additional watering during hot, dry summers.
Appearance and characteristics of crepe myrtle
The crepe myrtle is one of those all-too-rare plants that ticks so many boxes for today’s gardens. There’s a size for just about any situation, from balcony or courtyard to rolling acreage. They look truly lush and lovely when covered in foliage. They flower in the height of summer in a huge range of colours, many colour beautifully in autumn before their leaves drop, and then in winter they look stunning when their colourful bark is on full display. On top of all this, they are also pretty easy to care for, and quite hardy once established.
A crepe myrtle will, if left to its own devices, have a very neat form. From a single trunk it will develop multiple branches that form a distinct, moderately open, vase-like shape. Most crepe myrtles, however, do tend to be pruned, so this form will be changed somewhat by the pruning. The new growth tends to be whippy and the stems squarish, while the trunk can become quite stout with age. As the tree gets a little older one of its features becomes more apparent—the truly beautiful bark. This will be mottled in various shades of salmon-pink, brown and silvery-grey.
The summer flowers are held in long trusses on the ends of branches, technically called terminal panicles. Although the flowers themselves are quite small, these panicles can be enormous—in the modern varieties sizes of over 15cm wide by more than 30cm long are not uncommon. The flowers themselves are very distinctive, with the petals being quite ruffled, like crepe paper.
Being deciduous, the tree loses its leaves in autumn. Many have leaves that will colour up beautifully in reds, yellows and oranges as they fall. The tree will be bare through winter, but the beautiful bark and architectural form ensure it remains an interesting garden feature.
Crepe myrtle varieties
Not too long ago the main type of crepe myrtles grown were Lagerstroemia indica varieties. Today there are a couple of different species and a multitude of crosses and hybrids. Realistically, this doesn’t make an enormous amount of difference, as when you shop for a crepe myrtle chances are your main concerns will be flower colour and size. Nonetheless, it always helps to have a bit of an understanding about the names you may encounter.
Lagerstroemia indica: the more ‘traditional’ varieties.
Lagerstroemia fauriei increasingly popular species, generally only white flowering in species form.
Lagerstroemia fauriei x indica and Lagerstroemia indica x L. fauriei: newer hybrids in a range of colours.
You’ll also find varieties named more generally, such as Lagerstroemia “'Midnight Magic”.
Uses for crepe myrtle
Crepe myrtle has several uses, including:
Excellent feature plant in gardens of all sizes.
Fantastic for adding colour in summer.
Lovely autumn foliage.
Make a very striking feature planted in rows along a drive or path.
How to plant and grow crepe myrtle
Crepe myrtle prefers full sun. It will tolerate a little shade, however flowering may be reduced. It needs protection from summer winds to avoid flowers being lost prematurely. Some varieties can tolerate cold to around –3˚C, however they will perform better if sheltered from cold conditions.
Crepe myrtle prefers a good quality, reliably moist yet free-draining soil with added organic matter, but it will perform well in regular garden soil. In pots, use a premium-quality potting mix.
1. Improve soil at planting time by blending through some well-composted manure or quality compost.
2. As plants are often whippy and fast growing, they’ll benefit from staking for the first few months. Ensure at least two stakes are used.
3. If planting as bare-rooted plants, cut back by around 30% at planting time.
Caring for crepe myrtle
Crepe myrtles are relatively care free. Feed in spring with a quality controlled-release fertiliser that’s blended for flowering trees and shrubs, and water younger plants during extended dry periods.
How and when to prune crepe myrtle
There are many schools of thought on pruning a crepe myrtle, but there is one simple fact to remember—it will naturally develop a handsome form and flower abundantly without any pruning. That said, there are some times that you may wish to prune:
Prune a younger plant to encourage the form that you desire. This may include removing lower branches to create a higher canopy, and therefore a taller trunk with more bark visible.
Removing spent flowers after they finish to tidy the plant. Be aware, however, that this can lead to larger numbers of smaller flower heads next flowering season.
If you want to keep your plant at a shrubbier sort of size and form, cut it back as hard as desired while bare in winter.
During winter, remove any excessively twiggy growth, as this tends to be non-productive.
Diseases and pests
The classic forms of Lagerstroemia indica are quite prone to problems with powdery mildew, especially in humid regions. There is no practical way to treat the problem, so avoid it instead by planting one of the modern cultivars that have been bred for resistance to this fungal problem. Ask a plant specialist in your local nursery for advice on the best varieties for your situation.
How to propagate crepe myrtle
Growing crepe myrtle from cuttings
In winter, take hardwood cuttings (you can use pruning offcuts) of around 10–15cm.
Plant in a suitable propagation mix.
Keep moist in a warm, sunny location.
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