Thursday, August 27, 2009

Colorful Crape Myrtles

In the dry heat of Texas, nothing says “summer beauty” like crape myrtles.

Deep in the suburbs of Dallas, where the relentless sun bakes nearly every plant to death, beautiful gardens are not naturally abundant. When other states enjoy pleasant summer days, we have scorching heat. When blossoms of every kind flourish in the northern states, we stick with bushes and bermuda. On the Fourth of July, we sweat through a quick morning parade and then rush back to our air-conditioned homes.

Amid this sultry sea of grass and pavement, one reliable bloomer is the crape myrtle. Its bold spots of color provide bright highlights in an otherwise drab palette of red-brick buildings and faded green lawns. In fact, the plant has become so popular here that in 1997, it was named the official state shrub of Texas!

The crape myrtle, which comes in sizes from 3 to 15 feet tall, is one of the few flowering trees that both survives and thrives in the humid South, making it an ideal addition to many yards. In the spring, their barren twigs burst forth in green, followed by heavy bunches of vibrant purple, lavender, magenta, red, white and pink. In the fall, their flower clusters yield round seeds. In mature specimens, peeling bark showcases beautiful trunks that add interest in a dying landscape.

Crape myrtles are hardy as well as graceful, and they hold forth all summer long in one of the longest blooming seasons of any flowering tree. They prefer hot, sunny climates such as Texas, California and the Carolinas. The young trees need plenty of water, but once they are established, crape myrtles are fairly drought-tolerant and need little heavy pruning.

Most early crape myrtles in the United States originated from Lagerstroemia indica, a native of China and Korea. Since then, growers have developed hundreds of new cultivars of every type. It obtained its common name of “crape myrtle” due to the petals’ resemblance to crinkly crepe fabric.

First introduced to the United States around 1790 by French botanist Andre Michaux in Charleston, S.C., the deciduous plant is now a common ornamental shrub as far north as Massachusetts and in other warm climates throughout the world. It grows well along highways, in city landscaping and in residential yards. Inexpensive and versatile, it can be trained into a single trunk or left to grow with multiple trunks.

The Caroline Crape Myrtle Home Page states: “Their stunning summer color has made crape myrtles a hallmark plant of the South since 1800. Magnificent specimens grace historic neighborhoods of fine southern cities and stand as enduring symbols marking forgotten home sites in rural areas.”

With such flashy beauty and easy reliability, it’s no wonder the crape myrtle has grown to be such a beloved staple in Southern yards today.


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