It’s the middle of August and the crepe myrtles are at the peak of their 100 days of bloom. This ‘lilac of the south’ is in its glory, showering little crepes over the landscape.
In my front yard it has sprinkled the Alberta spruce with a candy-pink garnish; it has carpeted the ground around it with fluffy pink blooms.
At about 25 feet, its multiple, mature trunks have begun their annual peeling. The old cinnamon-brown bark falls off to reveal the mottled lighter next-year bark underneath. It has a silky feel and a beautiful look.
Crepe myrtles are native to China, Korea, Japan and India. Carl Linnaeus named them Lagerstroemia to honor his Swedish fellow-countryman, Magnus von Lagerström, a plant hunter who brought them back from his voyages. In 1790 French botanist, Andre Michaux planted them in his garden in Charleston, South Carolina. They thrived and our cultivars come from his original stock.
Zone 7 is favorable to crepe myrtles so we see them everywhere in their late-summer glory. But November will soon come and the flowers will be long gone. These deciduous trees will let go of their colorful autumn leaves. In the case of the one in my yard, the lovely limbs of the vase-shaped tree will stand elegant in the winter landscape.
But in many yards ‘crepe murder’ will begin. There is some notion, long debunked by gardeners, that crepe myrtles must be cut off at the knees to produce flowers for next year. This is practiced so universally here that people think it’s got some plantsman wisdom behind it. It doesn’t. Yes, in spring the branches will grow back with flowers on the ends, but they will be spindly branches that will dip toward the ground with the large flower weight in wind or storm. Not to mention there will be ruination of the crepe myrtle’s graceful natural shape. Those ugly knobby knees will peer up at the sky all winter long. It should be a capital offence to attempt ‘crepe murder’.
Tall varieties of crepe myrtle are great street trees if there are no overhead wires to require pruning. The breeders have been busy. Many new hybrids are available. Some bred to thrive in colder zones. It’s great to have a vigorous large shrub or small tree, whichever you want to call it, that’s disease resistant and flowering in the heat of August.
The Tree Center has an extensive discussion of crepe myrtles: their history, varieties, care, landscape uses, proper pruning and possible problems. Just hold off on the murder impulse.