Despite the occasional blasé attitude I encounter regarding crape myrtles, I still enjoy them immensely. Sometimes I hear that “everyone has crape myrtles” as a lament that they’re too common and overused to be interesting anymore, kind of like how most people in greater Washington D.C. have azaleas in their yard. Well, both cases may be true at face value, but one has to consider that “overuse” can be with good reason – the plants surely earn their keep when in season and still serve a valuable function in the garden when out of “season”.
Azaleas add an evergreen backbone to the winter garden and riotous color in the spring, when we’re all tired of dreary skies and grey melting snow. Crape myrtles wait until summer to hit us with equally brilliant colors, but they last longer and offer more seasons of beauty – smooth, sinuous bark that can showcase multiple hues of brown or tan and leaves that display various colors in autumn. These days, the spring and summer foliage can be a show-stopper too, as an impressive number of new varieties enter the market every few years with red new growth or amazingly dark purplish-black to plum-burgundy leaves all summer long.
There’s nothing more eye-catching than a border of shrubs and perennials with a dollop of dark chocolate dropped into the mix. If you really want to go whole-hog on foliage contrasts, try a yellow-leaved Deutzia or an orangey-red Barberry at its feet. Foliage on a nice white-edged Euonymus or Deutzia would also play well as a more subdued partner.
Crape myrtle flower colors are still the typical range of red to pink, white and purple, but there are some colors that are more unique such as purplish-raspberry and white-edged dark pink. We like to stock as many varieties as we can get our hands on because it gives you the best range of options with regards to the combination of flower color, foliage color and mature height.
I think crape myrtle look best either as a specimen tree (for the taller growers) or amongst a mixed planting (for the dwarf forms) of shrubs and perennials where they can be blended in with other flower colors, leaf textures and plant shapes to create an interesting and diverse landscape. I’d shy away from using them in containers because it increases the chance that they will suffer freeze damage or total loss over the winter.
Full sun with good drainage is the best position for crepes to prosper; in less than the ideal amount of light they can still bloom, but it will be more sporadic. Prune only as needed (don’t top them!) in late winter or, if you prefer, in spring as the new growth is emerging so you can tell where any dieback stops that may have occurred on small stems.
Pests and diseases are not major issues, but if yours does come down with aphids, mildew or leaf spot, they are all treatable with preventative organic and inorganic sprays. As an added bonus, deer don’t seem to be fond of crape myrtle foliage. Some of the new varieties of crape myrtle are seedless, but on the others you can “deadhead” by clipping off the spent flowers before they go to seed to save the plant energy and encourage it to flower a second time.
This is, of course, only practical on plants that you can reach without too much trouble, so don’t worry if you can’t deadhead a tree form as they will still produce some flowers into late summer.