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WICHE: Crape myrtles are high-summer bloomers

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By Jeneen Wiche

We should use more crape myrtles in Kentuckiana. They are not just for more warm, temperate climes. In fact, there are a great many that go unbothered by an average winter in our parts.

There is often a lull in the garden at this time. Our early-summer blooms are fading, and our late-summer garden has yet to pop.

But the crape myrtle can provide a colorful bridge between the two.

This summer blooming shrub is in full glory by the end of July through August, the months of high summer, as I like to call it.

Lagerstroemia indica, the common crape myrtle that was long available in the trade, has been used as a flowering tree or large shrub in areas to the south. Many of the old crape myrtles that are in Kentuckiana landscapes are root hardy, but they are killed back to the ground from time to time.

Every decade or so we have one of those winters where we experience prolonged bouts of below freezing temperature, something the plants cannot withstand. But most plantings are in a microclimate (i.e. protected area or on south side of house) that keeps them safe.

Winter die-back is not a total lose, because the plant will come back from the root system the following spring and it does bloom on new growth; but the downside to losing the woody part is that we also lose the age of the wood, if you will.

The peeling bark that is one of the attributes of crape myrtle usually doesn’t happen unless there is at least five years of age on the wood, so it is important to select hardy varieties in order to enjoy the exfoliating bark.

Also, the old varieties suffer from powdery mildew, a problem that was solved when the National Arboretum started their hybridizing work with crape myrtles.

Back in the 1960s, Don Egolf at the National Arboretum in Washington began work on hybrid versions of crape myrtles in an effort to improve hardiness, mildew resistance and overall garden appeal. He crossed Lagerstroemia indica, with its great blooms, and L. fauriei, with its winter hardiness and powdery mildew resistance, and came up with a great hybrid crape myrtle for people in zone 6.

The hybrids that Egolf developed and the ones that continue to come out of the National Arboretum have been named after Native American tribes.

Some of the ones to look for include Natchez, which can reach 15 feet. Natchez has white blooms and exceptional exfoliating bark.

Others recommended for exceptional bark are Apalachee, Lipan, Osage, Biloxi and Kiowa.

We have had some of the National Arboretum crape myrtles at the farm for years, and I can attest to their hardiness. Acoma has come back from old wood for more than 20 years now.

This one is now about 12 feet and has a distinctive pendulous growth habit. The semi-dwarf Hopi is a good choice for us if you want pink blooms, and Yuma has lavender blooms.

Some newer introductions out of the Arboretum include some dwarf hybrids that stay really small, like the miniature Pocomoke and some long-awaited, red-blooming crape myrtles.

In 2003 Arapaho and Cheyenne became available. Arapaho will reach about 15 feet at maturity, and Cheyenne is a bit more compact and rounded in habit.

Crape myrtles work well in any garden setting. They can stand alone as a specimen plant, in a mixed border or as a more formal flowering hedge.

You can limb them up, revealing the interesting bark and sculptural quality of the branching in order to maintain a more formal plant or let be if you prefer a more cottage-style garden.

I recommend removing leafy growth from the base so you can better enjoy the bark.

They really aren’t picky plants, but full sun is ideal for maximum bloom and a tighter growth habit.

Be patient in the spring, because it has been my experience that crape myrtles are slow to break dormancy. If you have a National Arboretum hybrid, chances are the plant will come through the winter unscathed.