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Crepe Myrtle

Photo: Dr. Robert Polomski

When you travel across the Carolinas, the chances are pretty good that you'll be welcomed by the colorful billowy blooms of crepe myrtles. Planted in single file rows along Main Street and in the front yards of modest and stately homes, crepe myrtles have made the south their home. Newcomers are surprised to learn that crepe myrtles are exotic plants that are native to the warmer regions of Asia and the Pacific Islands. They were introduced into the U.S. 230 years ago when the famous botanist to King Louis XVI and plant explorer, Andre Michaux, planted them in his nursery in Charleston, SC.

Crepe myrtles were quickly embraced by southerners and widely planted, particularly for its year-round interest: the new spring leaves emerge bronze or garnet-tinged before turning green in summer; the luxurious six- to sometimes 18 inch-inch long flowers clusters occur in white, pink, red, lavender, and purple from June to September; fall color can be yellow, orange, or red; and when the leaves fall the crepe myrtle looks like a living sculpture with curved, sinuous branches and exfoliating or peeling bark that varies in color from pale cream to a rich, cinnamon brown. Its heat and drought tolerance is legendary.

Crepe myrtles are one of our most versatile landscape plants for sunny locations. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes to accommodate any use. Single- or multi-stemmed tree forms perform well as flowering specimens or as small, flowering shade trees near patios, walkways, and entrances. Shrub forms can be used in shrub borders or foundation plantings. Dwarf crepes can be used like ground covers, perennial bedding plants, and in containers. Very dwarf crepe myrtles lend themselves to hanging baskets. Because of all of this variety, choose the right cultivar whose ultimate size and growth features match its intended use.

Try to avoid planting the wrong-sized crepe myrtle in the wrong location: it often leads to "crepe murder" – the indiscriminate butchering of branches that makes the crepe myrtle look like a sawed-off broom handle or hat-rack. Choose the right-sized crepe myrtle cultivars and plant them in the right spots so you can appreciate the year-round interest of these "lilacs of the South."