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Diggin’ In: Celebrating the crape myrtle in summer

July  20, 2015
 

Nothing says summer like the 100 days of flowers on crape myrtles that line streets and dot yards in Southern cites.

In southeastern Virginia, the crape myrtle has a long and storied history, and July is its peak bloom time.

In 1922, the Garden Club of Norfolk persuaded the Norfolk City Council to name the crape myrtle Norfolk’s official tree, according to Brian O’Neil, director of horticulture at Norfolk Botanical Garden in Norfolk.

"Their bloom period coincides with summer flowering roses, hydrangeas, perennials such as daylilies and cannas, and other plants, making a truly floriferous garden composition," says O’Neil.

"The blooming trees draw your eye upward into the blue summer sky, allowing the viewer to take in the entire garden setting from the ground on up."

Feverish with crape myrtle love, Norfolk Botanical Garden’s first Director Fred Heutte proposed and organized the first Norfolk Crape Myrtle Festival in 1951, in honor of the city’s official flower. That festival no longer exists, but McDonald Garden Center, in Hampton Roads, Va., has sponsored a similar July event for the past 33 years.

Today, crape myrtles, members of the Lagerstroemia indica family, are still revered as summer’s spectacular tree in cold hardy gardening zones that go into Zone 6 — some say Zone 5 for well-established roots. Northern folks who see the plants on southern trips have been known to plant them in large pots and winter them in temperate garages.

While crape myrtles are showy, they can also be fragrant, especially older species, according to O’Neil. There is a size to fit every growing space because the various cultivars range from groundcovers less than three feet tall to majestic stand-alone trees 35 feet tall.

You can see more than 400 crape myrtles in various sizes and colors at Norfolk Botanical Garden — www.norfolkbotanicalgarden.org . In 2014, the collection was certified as a national collection of Lagerstroemia by the North American Plant Collections Consortium, a program managed by the American Public Garden Association, according to O’Neil.

"We are the only national collection of crape myrtle in the nation," he says.

Crape myrtle 101

With the large number of varieties available, selecting a crepe myrtle is easy, according to Jake VanDyke, a buyer at McDonald Garden Center in Hampton, Va.

"First you must identify what size plant you want — shrub, small tree or large tree," he says.

"Then, select the variety and color that most appeals to you from among the options in that size category."

Your crape myrtle will flower better and longer if you plant it in a spot that gets lots of sun throughout the day, he adds.

Just after the tree is planted, fertilize it and continue to water it.

"Once crape myrtles are rooted in, they are extremely drought tolerant, but when first planted, they will need regular watering," he says.

10 best crape myrtles

McDonald Garden Center suggests these crape myrtles for home gardens:

— Tuscarora: Broad, vase-shaped tree, growing up to 25 feet tall and wide, bearing watermelon-red flowers. One of the longest blooming varieties. Spectacular peeling bark; red-orange fall color.

— Dynamite: Upright tree, growing up to 20 feet tall and wide; deep red flowers; red-orange fall color.

— Natchez: Vase-shaped tree, growing up to 30 feet tall and wide. Pure white flowers; red-orange fall color. One of the longest blooming varieties. Bark peels to a beautiful cinnamon color.

Muskogee: Vase-shaped tree, growing up to 25 feet tall and wide. Light lavender flowers; red-orange fall color. One of the longest blooming varieties. Bark peels to a beautiful chestnut color.

— Catawba:Upright tree, growing up to 15 feet tall and wide. Deep purple flowers; red-orange fall color.

— Tonto – Compact, rounded tree, growing up to 12 feet tall and wide. Dark fuchsia flowers; bright maroon fall color.

— Ebony & Ivory (new):Small tree, growing 12 feet tall and eight feet wide. Intense black leaves contrast with pure white flowers.

— Ebony Flame (new): Small tree, growing 12 feet tall and eight feet wide. Intense black leaves contrast with bright red flowers.

— Princess Holly Ann (new): Compact, upright shrub-type, growing four feet tall. Cherry red flowers; purplish-red fall color.

— Princess Lyla (new) – Mounding, low-growing shrub-type, growing one- to two-feet tall and wide. Light pink flowers; gold fall color. Great for beds and containers.

 

 


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