Crepe myrtle: the perfect summer flowering tree
Crepe myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica) is a tree or a tall shrub with a lot to offer gardeners. First up are its beautiful flowers in pink, heliotrope (a bright pink), red, mauve or vibrant white to enjoy from late spring well into autumn. And there’s no need to wait years for your beautiful blossoms, as these trees flower while young.
One of the reasons for their long blooming period is that the crinkled, crepe-like flowers that give the plant its common name are tough and resistant to both heat and rain. No matter what the season throws at them, crepe myrtles keep on looking good.
While they are particularly pretty when they are in flower, crepe myrtles look good year-round. As well as summer flowers, taller varieties offer welcome shade - and, as the long flowering season ends, their small leaves colour gold and red for autumn, even in temperate and coastal zones.
They also look good in the colder months. After their leaves fall, their bare branches and smooth silvery trunk becomes a lovely feature through winter.
Crepe myrtles grow in full sun or with part shade and tolerate everything from heat to frost. Dark leaf forms, such as the 'Diamonds in the Dark' series, will produce darker foliage tones in full sun.
Potted crepe myrtles can be planted at any time of the year. New-season stock generally arrives during winter, when trees are dormant, but some prefer to wait until summer so that they can choose their ideal plant based on flower colour.
There are many varieties of crepe myrtle available on the market. For a traditional small to medium garden tree for shade, privacy or as a garden feature, look for varieties in the 'Indian Summer' series including ‘Acoma’ (white flowers), ‘Zuni’ (dark lavender), ‘Biloxi’ (pink) and ‘Tuscarora’ (heliotrope).
The 'Diamonds in the Dark' series has burgundy-red, almost black leaves with contrasting white, pink, purple or red flowers. The plants grow to a compact 3m high and 2.5m wide that makes them ideal as a small specimen tree, container tree or to plant together as a hedge or screen. Varieties include ‘Best Red’, ‘Blush’, ‘Pure White’ and ‘Crimson Red’.
Crepe myrtles are also available as large shrubs just over 1m high. These smaller varieties suit small gardens or courtyards and can even be planted in containers. Look for named varieties and plant the colour and size that suits your needs. The 'Infinitini' series offers a dwarf range that includes blooms in Bright Pink, Magenta, Orchid and Watermelon.
Maintaining crepe myrtles
When planting, select a well-drained spot with good air circulation and allow plenty of space for their branches to spread to minimise any need for hard pruning. Traditionally crepe myrtles were pruned hard in winter, cutting all the branches back to the main stem to encourage tall, straight, flowering branches. Unpruned trees develop a naturally elegant shape and still bloom prolifically so today most crepe myrtles are left unpruned. The range of compact varieties also means that pruning isn’t needed to maintain plant size in a small space.
Do, however, give small plants a light trim after flowering to remove spent flower heads. If the plants produce suckering growth at their base, this should also be pruned away to reveal a slender clear trunk.
Feed crepe myrtles in spring as new growth resumes. Although these trees are drought-hardy, new plantings should be watered well through their first few summers. Also provide extra water to older trees if late spring and summer is particularly dry.