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All About Crape Myrtles

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Despite the occasional blasé attitude I encounter regarding crape myrtles, I still enjoy them immensely. Sometimes I hear that “everyone has crape myrtles” as a lament that they’re too common and overused to be interesting anymore, kind of like how most people in greater Washington D.C. have azaleas in their yard. Well, both cases may be true at face value, but one has to consider that “overuse” can be with good reason – the plants surely earn their keep when in season and still serve a valuable function in the garden when out of “season”.

Azaleas add an evergreen backbone to the winter garden and riotous color in the spring, when we’re all tired of dreary skies and grey melting snow. Crape myrtles wait until summer to hit us with equally brilliant colors, but they last longer and offer more seasons of beauty – smooth, sinuous bark that can showcase multiple hues of brown or tan and leaves that display various colors in autumn. These days, the spring and summer foliage can be a show-stopper too, as an impressive number of new varieties enter the market every few years with red new growth or amazingly dark purplish-black to plum-burgundy leaves all summer long.

There’s nothing more eye-catching than a border of shrubs and perennials with a dollop of dark chocolate dropped into the mix. If you really want to go whole-hog on foliage contrasts, try a yellow-leaved Deutzia or an orangey-red Barberry at its feet. Foliage on a nice white-edged Euonymus or Deutzia would also play well as a more subdued partner.

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Crape myrtle flower colors are still the typical range of red to pink, white and purple, but there are some colors that are more unique such as purplish-raspberry and white-edged dark pink. We like to stock as many varieties as we can get our hands on because it gives you the best range of options with regards to the combination of flower color, foliage color and mature height.

I think crape myrtle look best either as a specimen tree (for the taller growers) or amongst a mixed planting (for the dwarf forms) of shrubs and perennials where they can be blended in with other flower colors, leaf textures and plant shapes to create an interesting and diverse landscape. I’d shy away from using them in containers because it increases the chance that they will suffer freeze damage or total loss over the winter.

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Full sun with good drainage is the best position for crepes to prosper; in less than the ideal amount of light they can still bloom, but it will be more sporadic. Prune only as needed (don’t top them!) in late winter or, if you prefer, in spring as the new growth is emerging so you can tell where any dieback stops that may have occurred on small stems.

Pests and diseases are not major issues, but if yours does come down with aphids, mildew or leaf spot, they are all treatable with preventative organic and inorganic sprays. As an added bonus, deer don’t seem to be fond of crape myrtle foliage. Some of the new varieties of crape myrtle are seedless, but on the others you can “deadhead” by clipping off the spent flowers before they go to seed to save the plant energy and encourage it to flower a second time.

This is, of course, only practical on plants that you can reach without too much trouble, so don’t worry if you can’t deadhead a tree form as they will still produce some flowers into late summer.

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by Miri Talabac, Woody Plant Buyer

This Post Has 14 Comments
  1. What do you do with crepe myrtles that bud like crazy, but the blooms don’t open until Fall or don’t open at all?

  2. Hi Paul,

    I will email you to obtain more information about how your crepemyrtle is behaving, but my first guess is that the buds are infected with Powdery Mildew. It’s a common summer disease and, while some varieties of crepemyrtle are resistant to it, none are immune. Mildew is easily treated with various fungicidal sprays, though the buds that are already infected may not recover. In that case, just trim them off and keep an eye out for a recurrence of mildew and treat it early.

  3. Hi, I’m looking to learn how to prune our crepe myrtles. I’ve heard about “suckers” but I’m not sure when or how or where we should be pruning. We just bought them from you last fall and they are doing great. Thanks!

  4. I’m glad to hear the plants are doing well. Suckers are sprouts that emerge from the roots – a normal behavior for crepemyrtle – and will mature into more trunks in the future if not removed. Removal is purely a personal choice – the plant’s health won’t be negatively impacted by keeping versus removing them. If you wish to remove them, use pruners to cut them off at the soil level. They can be removed at any time of year that they appear.

  5. I would love to grow a small white coloured crape myrtle in the UK, near London. I have been warned that they can’t survive our winters which can be -2C. However visiting Washington I see it doing very well all around the place so I am inspired to plant one on my return. Which varieties are likely to be better would you advice please? I think it is colder here than in my home town. Thanks.

  6. Hello Lisa,

    As -2 degrees C is around 28 degrees F, that is within the temperature tolerances for crepemyrtle here in the mainland U.S. They tend to be fine until around zero degrees F, below which point dieback can occur. This is their in-ground hardiness; if a plant were in a container at those temperatures, damage may still occur since the roots are not sufficiently insulated. I am not familiar with soil types in the UK, but to my knowledge crepemyrtles are not too picky so long as the pH isn’t too alkaline. They do well in summer heat, so what I don’t know is if they will get enough warmth there, and if temperature patterns allow for humid, warm days and cool nights, be on the lookout for powdery mildew, a common ailment of crepemyrtle that thrives in those conditions. Many varieties are resistant, but in conditions ripe for mildew, it still may turn up. A climate that I think might be comparable to yours would be our pacific northwest, and as far as I’ve seen, few crepemyrtles are grown there by the nursery industry. Still, I’d say try it – you never know, and there are plenty of other plants growing in people’s gardens that, on paper, shouldn’t survive there.

  7. We bought a crepe myrtle last year, so it’s just a baby and about 7 feet tall. It’s a specimen tree and we bought a variety that will get pretty big. My question is, right now it looks kind of like a big bush and there isn’t much distance from the bottom branch to the ground. Will the “trunks” get taller with time or should we prune off the lower branches so it looks more like a tree? And when? Maybe in a couple of years? Thanks so much for any guidance you can give!

    1. Sarah,

      Most tree-sized shrubs (and even some smaller trees) look pretty “bushy” when young because of their lower branches and dense growth. As shrubs and trees grow, the wood where a branch attaches does not increase in height, only girth. In other words, a branch will never become higher off the ground as it matures – it only grows longer at the tip and thicker at the base. As such, as plants mature, these lower branches can be cut off as desired to develop a “tree” look – bare-stemmed at the base – and in nature, older trees have shed these branches themselves over time, though the scars where they attached in youth are sometimes hard to see. I have heard from tree growers that leaving lower branches on young trees can help them “caliper-up,” meaning that it helps increase the stem thickness, which can be aesthetically pleasing and offer some stem sturdiness in wind. In either case, you can trim them when you wish in terms of tree age, though it’s a common guideline among tree growers that no more than a third of a tree’s growth be removed in any one year. Yours sounds old enough that some removal of the lowest branches could probably be done this year. The best time of year to do such pruning is in late winter or early spring, as crapemyrtles leaf-out late and one never knows if there was winter dieback that needs removing, as it makes sense to do all pruning at the same time. Pruning could be done in summer, though I would not do any pruning from August ’till the end of the year to give them plenty of time to harden-off new growth for winter.

  8. What’s the best way to trim to maintain a good height and canopy? We’ve had ours for many years and it has grown very tall. I’ve seen some where they get severely cut back. Ours sits in a prominent corner in front of our house and I don’t think I want to go that far.

    1. Ken,

      Crapemyrtles are best when minimally trimmed. For the past ten or more years, there have been plenty of varieties on the market to choose from that allow landscapers to choose varieties with the desired color and height, rather than pruning back those varieties that grow taller than their space will allow. Since this practice persists for some reason, landscapers often drastically prune back crapemyrtle in the winter to make them fit into the landscape, or possibly simply because they think it improves the look of the plant. (Or they have not been taught why it’s a harmful practice.) This is a pruning technique that is strongly discouraged by all crapemyrtle growers, to the point that some of them have named it “crape murder” to get their point across. We agree that drastic pruning on crapemyrtle, while tolerated by the plants, is not a healthy pruning practice. Stems that are forced to regrow each year are proportionately more spindly and prone to storm damage and bending with the weight of wet flowers after rain. The stems never have the chance to thicken properly to be sturdy, and their point of attachment to the thicker stems can be weak. If your plants are at an acceptable height, then I would not prune them except to remove dead wood and, if desired and practical, spent flowers. (They do not need to be dead-headed, however.) Suckers growing from the trunk base can always be removed by trimming them just beneath the soil, but otherwise they are low-maintenance when it comes to pruning chores.

  9. We just planted 5 Crepe (Tonto) along a fence line. Can you tell me if they will bloom the first year? Also, do you have any pictures of a full size Tonto? I’ve not been able to find any and curious to see what they will end up like and how long it will take. The ones we purchased from your nursery are about 3′ tall.

    Thanks

    1. TinaK,

      I have observed that most crapemyrtles will bloom well from a very young age, so I would expect your ‘Tonto’ to bloom this year. Some varieties bloom earlier than others, though, and I think ‘Tonto’ is one of those not-the-earliest varieties that bloom later in July or August at the latest. “Full size” is tricky to quote, since plants never really stop growing and some get larger than their stated size over many years. That said, in general, ‘Tonto’ gets between 8′ and 12′ in height. There is a ‘Tonto’ in the yard of a family member that I helped plant about 18 years ago, and it is currently about 10′ or so tall. I have to break out a ladder to dead-head the top third of the plant, though I usually just leave it alone. I have a few ‘Tonto’ pictures, but don’t think I have one of a full-size plant, but I will look. With many plants, the larger they mature, the faster they grow, and in this case, ‘Tonto’ is a mid-sized crapemyrtle and grows about 1′ per year; sometimes less. Optimum growing conditions give the best growth rate – full sun (6+ hours per day), evenly moist or at least watered occasionally during drought (we are in a bit of a drought right now), and, depending on soil type, occasional fertilizer. Clay soils hold nutrients well and those of us in central MD or D.C. with clay usually don’t need to fertilize crapemyrtles much, but eastern counties with sandier soil might benefit from a bit more fertilization. Still, crapemyrtles are not nutrient “hogs,” unlike, say, roses, so their care is fairly simple. If yours are 3′ tall now, I would guess that they’d be close to full size in another five or seven years.

  10. I’ve read your article about crape myrtles and every year I go back and forth about trimming new growth. On one hand, I think the tree looks healthier when it’s full from the bottom up. But if I trim the new growth, it looks more typically tree like.
    Then one gets into pruning during the winter, but that’s an entirely different subject.
    I’d appreciate any suggestions. I tend to be of the group that prefers the fuller effect, but want to do what’s best for the tree.
    Thank you,

    1. Betsy,

      In this case, you can trim as you see fit with regards to aesthetics. Leaving them alone can result in bushier lower growth, but this does no harm to the plant. Similarly, as you pointed out, pruning off lower branches can give a larger crapemyrtle a more tree-like look, which many people prefer, but also does no harm to the plant if not done too drastically or by removing too much growth in any one year. (About a third of the growth in any one year is the recommended maximum in trimming any tree or tree-like shrub.) Trimming to shape should happen in late winter as the bare branches make the shape easiest to see and the act of pruning easiest to do with nothing obscuring your view. Trimming in early summer is ok, though will decrease flowering by virtue of the fact that flowering-age stems are being removed, but should not be done from August ’till winter as this can negatively impact winter hardiness. This summer pruning might be preferred if you want to see how removing certain branches will impact the bushiness of the lower portion of the plant. I’d say that if you’re happy with how the crape looks now, don’t worry about trimming. If you’d like to give it a more defined shape, or make it look a bit more tree-like shape, you can still do some trimming in July to tweak it. I have helped plant and maintain several crapemyrtles and can say that I’ve never done much trimming on them except to remove dieback and occasionally dead-head spent flowers. Suckers don’t always appear but when they do, they can be trimmed off at any time. All of the display plantings of crapemyrtles here on the nursery get minimal (or no) pruning in winter or summer…twice a year, tops.

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