Southern Hospitali-Tree: The Famed Crepe Myrtles of Charleston

Photos by Ryan Benoit

One half of the Horticult is traipsing around Charleston, SC, this week, taking in lots of Queen Anne architecture and eating his weight in oysters. Ryan’s also getting his fill of the South’s iconic summer bloomer: the crepe myrtle.

Sculptural branches, sizzling autumn leaves, and bark that peels off in stripes of pink, tan and cinnamon all make the Lagerstroemia indica a year-round stunner. But it’s in the summer that these shrubs and trees mount their sweat-worthy display: spikes brimming with flowers in flamboyant shades of pink, purple, red and white.

Crepe myrtles of Charleston South Carolina

L. indica first arrived in the U.S. in 1786 by way of Charleston, imported by French plant explorer and royal botanist André Michaux.

Crepe myrtles of Charleston South Carolina

Crepe myrtle can grow in either shrub or tree form, depending on the selection and growing methods.

Crepe myrtles of Charleston South Carolina

Broad Street is home to an array of crepe myrtles and Queen Anne-style homes. Two crepe myrtles stand proudly in this front yard. The color combo = perfection.

Crepe myrtles of Charleston South Carolina

This crepe myrtle creeps over the iron fence at the John Rutledge House Inn. (John Rutledge was the first governor of South Carolina.)

Crepe myrtles of Charleston South Carolina

The crepe myrtle’s colorful exfoliating bark provides year-round interest. Attractively tortuous branches and blazing fall foliage also make the plant a charismatic landscape staple.

Crepe myrtles of Charleston South Carolina

Flower clusters, also known as panicles, range from 6 to 18 inches long.

Crepe — also spelled “crape” — myrtle is native to China and Korea. As it happens, when L. indica was first brought to the U.S. in 1786 by André Michaux (plant adventurer and botanist to King Louis XVI), its entry point was Charleston. After spotting an almost-dead specimen on a Chinese freighter, André sent samples to his Chucktown greenhouse, and the sensation spread from there.

Before arriving in the U.S., the plant had had a lousy time in England, where mild summers suppressed its blooms. What it needed was heat and humidity, which Charleston — hovering in the mid-90s this week — has in truckloads.

Which helps to explain why L. indica‘s many cultivars are hardy in USDA Zones 7 to 10 (and can perish in harsher winters in Zone 7). Hybrids with L. fauriei as a parent are hardier, able to withstand Zone 7’s colder pockets, and are more resistant to mildew. These hybrids are also known for their especially theatrical bark.

Crepe myrtles of Charleston South Carolina

Many cultivars of L. indica have been developed for aesthetics and mildew resistance. In addition, hybrids with L. fauriei parentage are popular for their hardiness and theatrical bark.

Crepe myrtles of Charleston South Carolina

Rainbow Row on East Bay Street is Charleston’s longest row of intact Georgian row houses, some built as early as 1680. White crepe myrtles have been planted along the entire strip of historic homes.

Crepe myrtles of Charleston South Carolina

Woof! That’s a handsome bark right there.

Crepe myrtles of Charleston South Carolina

The buds are all a-mingle with the blooms. As of late June, blooms are just getting started.

Queen’s crepe myrtle (L. speciosa), meanwhile, according to Southern Living, is “the showiest and most tender of the crepe myrtles.” A lover of the tropics and subtropics, it’s hardy in Zones 10 through 11, blooming across the white/pink/lavender/purple spectrum in June and July. On the queen’s crepe myrtle, a single flower can reach up to 3 inches wide, compared to the 1 to 1 ½-inch widths of L. indica blossoms.

Crepe myrtles thrive in full sun. Flowering can begin as early as May, continuing into the early fall. Crepe myrtle is so named because of the crinkled-paper texture of these blooms, a stimulating contrast with its glossy green leaves. The drought-tolerant plant thrives in most kinds of soil as long as it’s well-drained.

Crepe myrtles of Charleston South Carolina

Some selections of crepe myrtle grow as shrubs, others can be trained as trees. Dwarf forms can be as short as 3 feet tall; trees get as tall as 30. Southern Living recommends pruning in winter or early spring to remove crossing branches, basal suckers, et cetera, and notnot, not to cut them down to “ugly stubs each spring,” a practice that seems to be frightfully common.

If you do, the Grumpy Gardener might come for you.

Below, explore the splendor of Charleston’s blooming sweetheart…

What summer tree is your favorite? Tell us in the comments!

—TH

Crepe myrtles of Charleston South Carolina

Ryan chased down so many crepe myrtles he almost ran out of gas!

Crepe myrtles of Charleston South Carolina

Crepe myrtles of Charleston South Carolina

The beard you see here is Spanish moss (a type of tillandsia/air plant) commonly found dangling from live oaks throughout the Carolinas.

Crepe myrtles of Charleston South Carolina

Crepe myrtles of Charleston South Carolina

Crepes against brick? We’re fans!

Crepe myrtles of Charleston South Carolina

Crepe myrtles of Charleston South Carolina

Crepe myrtles of Charleston South Carolina

At one of Ryan’s new favorite watering holes, the Griffon, two crepe myrtles greet guests at the entryway.

Crepe myrtles of Charleston South Carolina

Crepe myrtles of Charleston South Carolina

Crepe myrtles of Charleston South Carolina

Crepe myrtles of Charleston South Carolina

Looking south on Rainbow Row.

Crepe myrtles of Charleston South Carolina

Crepe myrtles of Charleston South Carolina

East Bay Street adjacent to Rainbow Row.

Crepe myrtles of Charleston South Carolina

Crepe myrtles of Charleston South Carolina

Heading towards King Street.

Crepe myrtles of Charleston South Carolina

Crepe myrtles of Charleston South Carolina

Meeting Street near the College of Charleston.

Crepe myrtles of Charleston South Carolina

College of Charleston’s Pi Kappa Phi Alpha chapter, and a small, slim crepe myrtle.

Crepe myrtles of Charleston South Carolina

At first blush, the buds here resemble berries.

Crepe myrtles of Charleston South Carolina