November 10, 2008

Planter's Punch: Crape Myrtle Color

The best recipe for a big punch of summer color is a crape myrtle planted in a southern garden. However, the color doesn't stop there. The autumn color is spectacular, too. If that's not enough, the peeling bark provides plenty of interest over the winter. In the spring, it is green. Four seasons of color or interest in one small tree.

The list of crape myrtle varieties goes on and on. My favorite is Lagerstroemia indica 'Tuscarora' that is growing in my garden. I love this tree so much that I use the July photo as my blog logo to represent my deer resistant outer garden. As much as I would like for the blooms to be less watermelon and more magenta in color, I'll keep it for abundant blooms. Planted in fall 2005, this summer was the best show that I've seen. The sturdy branches held up the heavy weight of the large panicles of clustered flowers.

Most lagerstroemia are rated for zones 7-9, although there are a few that are now available for zone 6. The 'Tuscarora' grows to a height of 20 feet and a width of about 15 feet. If you want a smaller tree or shrub form, there are new varieties available. I have a shrub-sized 'white chocolate' out in my perennial garden. There are many colors from which to choose--white as well as shades of lavender, purple, pink and red.

These are tough trees, taking full sun, so they are used extensively in parking lot strips and sidewalk plantings along many streets throughout the southeast. But, if you take these trees out of those stark concrete corridors and place them in the garden with a mix of shrubs, perennials, bulbs and grasses, you'll have a great specimen tree.

I've had no problems growing perennials underneath a crape myrtle. Nepeta, Dutch iris, snapdragons, ice plant, buddleia, monarda and stachys are all pretty happy. I can plant sun-loving plants underneath my trees due to the south-facing exposure in my garden. Positioned differently, I've seen shade perennials growing underneath crape.

The downside is keeping the sprouts at the base under control. At least twice a year, I have to work on these wayward sprouts on two of my three trees. For some reason, the third is fine. I've found seedlings coming up at the dripline of the third tree. I'm already looking around my garden for a place for the offspring to see how well they resemble the parent.

There are two controversies around this tree. The spelling and the pruning. It is sometimes spelled crepe instead of crape. Or, crapemyrtle as one word. If you search the web, you will find the pruning problems referenced in Greg Grant's article, "Crape Murder." The crime is due to the flat-top scalping of the branches by landscapers. Don't do that, please. Read the article for all the reasons. I just deadhead the clusters of seeds like I would a perennial, but only for the low branches that I can reach in late winter. The rest is up to nature. I don't cut into the wood branches unless I'm taking out a central branch that is crossing the healthier branches.

I will always have crape myrtle in my garden. It's a southern thing. I've got to have magnolias, gardenias and azaleas, too.

Photos and story by Cameron

Freelance travel writer. My current fiction writing projects include a completed manuscript and several works in progress.

By the way, my name is pronounced fred-ah, not freed-ah. Thank you.

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