You’ve probably seen them — the big masses of bright, frilly flowers blooming now on tall shrubs with exfoliating bark. These are crepe myrtles and it’s been impossible not to notice them lately. Week after week, their branches have been clad in profuse panicles in a variety of colors — their “signature” pink, along with plain white, and shades of purples and crimson. Gorgeous! And we can expect the blooms to continue a few weeks longer.
Crepe myrtle is also spelled crepemyrtle, crape myrtle, and crapemyrtle. If you want to avoid the confusion, you can refer to it by its botanical name, Lagerstroemia indica. Along with the spelling of its common name, there also seems to be disagreement on the geographic origins of this plant, attributed variously to Japan, to India and Southeast Asia, to Korea, and to China.
Michael Dirr (Manual of Woody Landscape Plants) says that crepe myrtle was introduced from its native China/Korea in 1747. However, many other sources say that crepe myrtle was introduced (from China) a bit later than that.
As told by Steve Bender, garden blogger for Southern Living, the story goes that crepe myrtle arrived in England in 1759. It did not do well there; the English climate just wasn’t hot enough. When the plant was introduced to Charleston, South Carolina in 1786, however, “it celebrated like an innocent prisoner released from jail.” (A Brief History of the Crepe Myrtle, by Steve Bender, southernliving.com)
Regardless of the exact arrival date, the early introduction of crepe myrtle shows how interested people were in exotic plants, even way back then.
Another possible point of confusion is whether crepe myrtle is rightly called a shrub or a small tree. Here in Zone 7, the upper limit of its range, I have seen large, shrub-sized plants. In parts of the South, I’ve seen them planted as street trees, and growing to twelve feet or more.
For gardeners who like to plant for “seasonal interest,” crepe myrtle is a natural. In spring, the leaves emerge a beautiful bronze color that gradually matures to a medium green. In July, August, and September the small trees are laden with vibrant, striking flowers, as we’re seeing now.
In the fall, the leaves turn any of a variety of colors ranging from yellow, orange, red, and almost purple, all on the same tree. Finally, in winter, without leaves and flowers to divert attention, it’s all about the beautiful, vari-colored, exfoliating bark. And as if all that isn’t enough, crepe myrtle loves our warm, humid summers.
With all this going for it, is there anything not to like about crepe myrtle? Well, it’s not a native plant and I couldn’t find any mention of either the pollen or the seeds being attractive to wildlife. So, if you’re interested in nurturing/supporting our native animal species, as we all should be, know this plant won’t help.
Sometimes, though, you want to plant something just because it’s beautiful. If you’re looking for a shrub that flowers in the summer and is long-blooming, maybe crepe myrtle is the plant for you. At least, unlike a shrub like burning bush (Euonymus), it isn’t invasive. Just be mindful that planting non-native species in hopes of attracting/benefiting wildlife is like offering plastic food to dinner guests. So if you do include exotic species, try and tip the balance toward our native plants.
One more thing: if you have a chance, stop by a crepe myrtle and inspect an individual flower. If you look closely, you’ll see a cluster of bright yellow stamens centered in six sepals. You’ll also see that there are six crinkly petals per flower, each attached to the center on a little “stem.” The overall effect is of a tiny, frilly space-ship, unlike any other flower I’ve seen.
FALL GARDENERS’ MARKET
The Hardy Plant Society /Mid Atlantic Group hosts a Fall Gardeners’ Market from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 26. Sale highlights include conifers, rare trees and shrubs (woodies and evergreens), natives, perennials, ferns, sun and shade garden plants, and specialty plants such as native azaleas, ITOH peonies, hellebores, and pitcher plants. Several vendors will also feature garden art, horticultural tools and supplies, specialty soils, honey products, garden design, installation, and maintenance services.
Bring a wagon or cart to carry your purchases. A plant park is available to leave your selections while you shop. The event is hed at Freedoms Foundation, 1601 Valley Forge Road (Route 23), Valley Forge, PA 19482
Pam Baxter is an avid organic vegetable gardener who lives in Kimberton. Direct e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org, or send mail to P.O. Box 80, Kimberton, PA 19442. Join the conversation at “Chester County Roots,” a Facebook page for gardeners in the Delaware Valley. Go to Facebook, search for Chester County Roots, and “like” the page. To receive notice of updates, click or hover on “Liked” to set your preferences.