Originally from East Asia, crape myrtles have become much more widely planted in recent decades thanks to the development of varieties that are hardier and more disease-resistant.
Their appeal is obvious: Crape myrtles are one of the few woody plants to bloom with gusto during hot, humid summer months. They have good fall leaf color, and in types where the bark is exposed, the trunks can be spectacular and provide display year-round. Many of these new varieties were developed at the U.S. National Arboretum. In addition to having space to grow, crape myrtles prefer a sunny location and free-draining soil.
If you don’t have room for the popular large tree forms that grow between 20 and 30 feet high, such as Natchez, Miami and Choctaw, choose smaller hybrids that typically reach to between 12 and 15 feet. Thus, you won’t have to resort to crape murder. These include Yuma (lavender), Sioux (dark pink); Acoma (white) or Lipan (near-white bark).
If you have room for a tree to reach 20 feet in maturity, consider Tuskegee (dark rose) Potomac (medium pink) or Catawba (purple).
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Young crape myrtles are raised in containers with several discrete stems. After planting, they benefit from pruning to clean up congested and crossing branches and to bring out the trunk structure. Alternatively, you can get a single-stemmed plant that will develop into a main trunk with branching – these are typically harder to find. Even if you are getting someone else to plant them for you, it is worth going to a garden center or retail nursery to pick out individual specimens to get the form you want.
Wait a growing season or two before grooming and shaping tree forms to allow them to get established and build reserves.
Crape myrtles also grow as medium to large shrubs, and although they are deciduous, these varieties work well for screening, for informal hedges or as a single accent plant in small urban gardens. The arboretum has released a number of such hybrids, including Cheyenne (red), Hopi (pink), Tonto (fuchsia) and Zuni (lavender).
Dwarf varieties grow between 2 and 5 feet and can be used as edging plants for paths and patios, or mixed with sun-loving perennials and grasses for a summer garden. These include the miniature, pink-flowering Pocomoke; Berry Dazzle (magenta) and Cherry Dazzle (red).
Many plant retailers have a limited selection of crape myrtles; ask about their inventory before you set out.