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 Crape Myrtles Ė Summer Flower Explosion!  by Don Urbanus

             July through August means all the crape myrtles should be bursting with color.  I have a confession to make.  I used to hate crape myrtles.  As a grower in the bay area, powdery mildew was a constant problem.  We had to spray them and if you missed a spray, the leaves would be covered with mildew and the plant unsalable.   

            Then about twenty years ago, breeders started crossing your basic crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica) from China with a species from Japan (L. fauriei).  The result was an explosion of crape myrtles with amazing flower colors, sizes and mildew resistance.   Add nice and sometimes spectacular fall color, flowers in summer, drought resistance, interesting bark and whatís not to like?

            Crape myrtles vary in sizes with the tall size in the 20 to 30 foot range.  Mediums grow up to 16 feet tall.  Semi-dwarfs are 5 to 10 feet tall and dwarfs are 4 feet or less.  There are probably over 80 varieties of crape myrtles.  Some have fallen to the wayside and are hard to find as newer, fancier varieties are introduced.

           Many of the crape myrtle hybrids were given Indian names like Natchez (white) and Muskogee (lavender), the two tallest varieties growing to 30 feet tall.  Other tall varieties include Tuscarora (dark coral pink), Potomac (med. Pink) and Choctaw (bright pink) are also popular.  

            About 10 years ago, a bright flaming cherry red crape myrtle called Dynamite was introduced.  It is an eye catcher and is in much demand.  The color is incredible.  Red Rocket followed that.  It has the same flower color.  The only difference might be that Dynamite has more reddish foliage.  Both occasionally get popcorn white or pinkish flowers that have customers running down to the nursery saying that something happened to their crape myrtle.  Arapaho is another flaming red almost identical to Dynamite.  All are taller varieties. 

            Medium sized are Catawba (purple), Centennial Spirit (intense pinkish red), Powhatan (dark lavender), Raspberry Sundae (intense pinkish red) Twilight (purple)  and Cherokee (soft red).

            Semi-dwarfs are Acoma (white), Pink Velour (bright dark pink) and one of my favorites, Zuni (dark lavender).  There are also many new varieties in this size in the Magic series that are being introduced recently.   I donít have any experience with them yet but they look promising.

            There are many new dwarfs that are being introduced including the Petiteís and the Magic series.  A lot of the older varieties didnít quite have the mildew resistance for them to really take off.  I expect an explosion of new varieties in this category.

            Crape myrtles naturally grow with multiple trunks.  What is called a ďtreeĒ is trained with a single trunk.  Whether they have a single or multiple trunks, the height will eventually be the same.  Itís not easy training them to be a tree sometimes because the darn thing wants to flower as its being trained up the stake.  The flower has to be cut off and a new branch trained up the stake.  Because of this tendency for bushiness, suckers can sometimes be a problem.  Look for trees that have no suckers in the nursery.  If you get suckers, go down into the ground and cut them back as far as you can.

            Most crape myrtles are very hardy but frost can burn them if they leaf out and there is a late frost.  This tends to limit their range here to below 3000 feet in elevation.     Fortunately they tend to leaf out late in the spring.  Every year in spring someone brings in a branch and tells me their crape myrtle is dead.  If you scratch the stem, you will notice that it is green.  Give it some time.

            Occasionally in spring a particular variety of aphid will infest your crape myrtle.  If left on, the honeydew created by the aphidís excretions will cause a blackish film on the leaves.  This is called sooty mold.  It can be wiped off.  Get rid of the aphids and the mold will go away.  Sprays donít work very well on this aphid.  The most effective treatment is a systemic granular or liquid insecticide poured on the roots.

            One complaint we get is that their crape myrtles are not blooming.  The remedy is simple.  Think of it like a big rose.  Prune the crape myrtle hard at the end of winter.  Fertilize it and water it more, especially in the spring.  Crape myrtles bloom on new growth - the more new growth, the more flowers.  Dead heading the old flowers will produce another round of flowers.

            So the new varieties brought me round.  Now crape myrtles are one of my favorite plants.  It is one of the few varieties that give us fantastic summer color and another show of oranges and reds on their leaves in the fall. 


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