Summer may be the time for kicking back and relaxing for humans, but it’s a stressful time in the garden. Hot days, warm nights and short-term droughts conspire to send those plants that prefer the cooler times into horticultural heaven sometimes known as the compost pile. But, if you want easy summer living in the garden and you want to show your team spirit, crape myrtles (Lagerstroemia sp. ) are hot-weather high performers.
Success with crape myrtles isn’t difficult. All you need is lots of heat, lots of sun and well-drained but not dry soils. Keep them out of the direct ocean breeze, control the aphids that attack and you can have 60 to 90 days of color ranging from white, pink, lavender, purple and red. Stick with varieties that have good resistance to the fungal disease powdery mildew that may attack in spring.
The earliest varieties to bloom such as the white Natchez get started about now. Other selections continue the show into early fall – especially if you remove the first crop of seed pods that form and add a little extra nitrogen for a new flush of growth.
Since the people who know me realize that crape myrtles are one of my favorite groups of plants, they always ask, “Which one is the best?” That’s rather like asking a parent which child they prefer, but I’ll give it a shot.
If Moo U. (that’s N.C. State University for the uninitiated) is your school, the choice for a number of years has been Red Rocket. This is a true red that grows to 15 feet or so. Its sister plant Dynamite isn’t quite as vigorous but looks very similar. New to the trade is ‘Miss Francis’. It was developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and looks very promising. You won’t be able to find larger specimens until next year, though.
East Carolina fans looking to show their purple pride in the landscape have typically used ‘Catawba’. This plant is universally disliked by nursery growers. ‘Miss Gail’ and ‘Miss Sandra’ are purple-flowered selections that were developed along with Miss Francis. While these are definite improvements over Catawba, they aren’t available in the retail trade right now.
Unfortunately for those of you from those other two schools in Durham and Chapel Hill, you can’t find crape myrtles with blooms in any shade of blue.
Crape myrtles do come in just about every shade of pink. Check out the Near East at the New Hanover County Extension Arboretum on the island in the pond. It’s not one of my favorites but its pale pink flowers do look spectacular reflected in the water. Miami – a nice 20-foot medium pink – graces the entrance to the overflow parking area. Drive into the main parking lot off Oleander Driver and you’ll see two nice examples of Tonto – a dark pink selection that only grows to 10 feet or so.
Crape myrtles with burgundy leaves have been the rage for several years. The first was the Jazz series. Now there are several others to totally confuse us all. Delta Jazz has pink flowers and is planted in front of the Ross Greenhouse at the New Hanover County Arboretum. It has performed well, but we’ll have to wait to see which crape with burgundy leaves blows us away.
The pruning done to crape myrtles is often a botanical travesty. Choose plants that fit the space you have. Crape myrtles range from 3 feet to 45 feet tall, so you have lots of choices. Then, you won’t have to hack them back each year.
Al Hight has over 30 years of experience as an Extension agent, landscape and irrigation contractor and consultant. Contact him at gardensolutions6@ gmail.com.