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 — 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.
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.
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 not, not, 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!