In Greg's Garden: Crapemyrtles Rooted in Love

By Greg Grant

I know some of you think crapemyrtles are "meh" but they have always been a part of my life, as well as many home landscapers in Texas.

Although they are not native, they are not invasive and are very much adapted to the eastern third of the state. As a matter of fact, they are one of the most common surviving ornamental plants at old homesteads and rural family cemeteries in the South.

Those are the locations where I first met crapemyrtles. For a youngster in love with trying to make plants grow, it was hard not to notice the showy heat-loving blossoms associated with graceful, muscular trunks.

Most of the crapemyrtles I encountered were in shades of pink, with a few whites tossed in, but my favorites were the purples. Depending on when you asked me in life, my favorite color has always ranged between violet and burgundy. Which begs the question, did I attend and work at Texas A&M and Stephen F. Austin State Universities because of the horticulture programs or because of the school colors?

In addition to the picturesque trees themselves, I was also enamored with the settings in which they grew. Most of the crapemyrtles I encountered were unattended with no watering, no weeding and no spraying. The carefree antique roses, Narcissus, bearded iris, crinums and other heirloom treasures surrounding the crapemyrtles also became my lifelong friends for the same reasons.

Previously I had only associated beautiful flowers with maximum attention and input.

My Arcadian roots also loved the rural settings these low-maintenance survivors clung to. Nothing was more relaxing than enjoying the solitude and history of these old sites.

Two of my favorite childhood pastimes associated with crapemyrtles were peeling the exfoliating bark off the smooth trunks and twisting and popping the fat unopened flower buds open between my fingers to make them seemingly bloom in “time lapsed” motion.

Now that the conveyor belt of life has sped up, I find myself using the blower to quickly remove the bark shards and can’t recall blooming a crapemyrtle bud between my fingers in years. Perhaps when I can’t get around anymore they’ll put me next to an old crapemyrtle where I can reach the flaking bark.

Crapemyrtles are from China and were introduced into the South in the early 1800's. George Washington actually received seeds of them in 1799!

As much as I love crapemyrtles, however, I do not agree with their official designation as the “Texas State Shrub.” First, because I think a unique native shrub like Texas sage or Texas mountain laurel that we didn’t share with a host of other states (and countries) would have been a more appropriate choice. And secondly, because most of the crapemyrtle cultivars grown in Texas are trees, not shrubs!

This brings up a very important bit of information that many uninformed gardeners aren’t aware of.

There are hundreds of cultivars of crapemyrtles, with an assortment of ultimate heights ranging from 3 feet to 30 feet. In other words, crapemrytles can be small shrubs, large shrubs or small trees, depending on the cultivar you choose. Heck, some of the hybrid crapemyrtle selections can even serve as shade trees in small landscapes.

Unfortunately, many customers purchase crapemyrtles based on bloom color alone and often plant tree types beneath windows, next to sidewalks and under low power lines where they simply aren’t appropriate. This leads to constant pruning to keep them out of the way. Don’t even get me started on crapemyrtle pruning. Too late, we’ve already started!

The most baffling phenomenon associated with crapemyrtles has now reached epidemic proportions. In horticultural circles it is known as “crape murder.” Not only are tree-type crapemyrtles crammed into small sites, but, rows, clumps and specimens out in the wide open now fall prey to the annual butchering and topping of crapemyrtles.

I have several friends who wish I’d shut up about this whole matter. And I suppose I should because the more I talk about it, the worse it gets!

It used to be most common in Texas and rare across the Deep South, but now beautiful crapemyrtles in cities like Baton Rouge and Savannah are being mutilated on an annual basis. Earlier this year I visited the beautiful city of Monroe, Louisiana, and could scarcely find a single crapemyrtle that wasn’t topped.

Certainly everyone has the right to do whatever they want with the plants in their gardens, but it just seems so odd to me that there isn’t an expert, book or manual on the planet that recommends this type of pruning on crapemyrtles (or any tree for that matter), yet it is now the standard.

Since many books and articles each year preach avoiding or kicking the "crape murder" habit, I can only assume the folks doing it can’t read. Why anyone would take such beautifully branched pieces of living sculpture and turn them into grotesque gnarly stubs is beyond me.

This practice also promotes suckering at the base of the tree, reduces cold hardiness, increases dead wood and may lead to increased susceptibility to crapemyrtle bark scale. It’s also a colossal waste of money, time and energy. Some folks must have plenty of those (and little sense). To each his own, however.

One day I’ll charge admission for folks to drive down my little purple crapemyrtle alley so they can see how beautiful crapemyrtles can be with so little effort.

I started each one from a cutting from Thelma and Ezra Wheeler’s old homeplace nearby where my father first started his cattle ranch. I even put Thelma’s old gate on my little front fence and lined the fence with her screaming magentapink Byzantine gladiolus. I never knew Miss Thelma, but I think she’d be proud that I grow her old flowers and leave her crapemyrtles be. Looking on the bright side, the uglier others make theirs look, the prettier mine get! 

Be on the lookout

A recently introduced Chinese insect now threatens crapemyrtles.

Crapemyrtle bark scale is a piercing, sucking insect that covers the trunks and twigs of crapemyrtles and sucks the sap from them. Although it may not kill them, it can severely reduce their vigor and reduce their bloom size. It is unfortunately very difficult to control. It better stay away from mine!

Click here for more information on crapemyrtle bark scale.



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