The Q&A Archives: crepe myrtle

Question: I just purchased a crepe myrtle from a nursery, and as there was not any instuctions on how to care for this tree, watering, food and does it need any kind of spraying for certain bugs

Answer: Crape myrtle is valued as a landscape plant for its prolific summer flowers, heat and drought tolerance, and year-round landscape interest. Flowering begins as early as May in some cultivars and continues into the fall. Each 6- to 18-inch cluster of flowers (or panicle) develops on the tips of new growth and is composed of hundreds of 1-to 2-inch flowers. Color ranges include shades of purple, lavender, white, pink and red, including "true" red, a relatively recent development. Some cultivars have bicolor flowers (two colors on each petal), some cultivars have flower colors that fade with age or certain environmental conditions, and other cultivars have panicles composed of a mix of flower colors. Many Lagerstroemia fauriei and hybrid cultivars feature beautiful, colorful bark. Strips of bark peel off in early summer to reveal mottled new bark ranging in color from pale cream to dark cinnamon to rich brown to bright orange. The bark color gradually fades over winter until it peels again the next summer. Leaves on many of the Lagerstroemia indica cultivars are rounded or spoon-shaped and up to 3 inches long. Most hybrid cultivars have lance-shaped leaves up to 5 inches long and 3 inches wide while other species have even larger leaves. Leaves are often tinged red in the spring and turn dark green by summer. Several cultivars are known for new growth that is bronze, red or burgundy and some cultivars are claimed to have burgundy-colored foliage all summer. When the leaves fall in winter, crape myrtle becomes a living sculpture. The trunk and branches of tree-form plants have an attractively gnarled, sinuous character with smooth bark. Crape myrtle is adapted to climatic conditions throughout Florida. Well-established plants are extremely drought tolerant and have low fertility requirements, although they respond to fertilizer and water with lush growth. Crape myrtle has low salt tolerance, so it should not be irrigated with saline water or used near the coast unless it is well-protected from saline conditions. Full sun is necessary for best flowering and for development of a full, symmetrical crown. Crape myrtle is tolerant of a wide range of soil types but grows poorly in wet soils. It is best adapted to loamy soils that are slightly acid (pH 5.0 to 6.5). Species and cultivars susceptible to powdery mildew should be placed in locations that allow air movement to help avoid potential problems with this unsightly disease. Crape myrtle transplants easily. Best results occur if container-grown crape myrtles are planted during early summer when in active growth. Bare root or balled-and-burlapped crape myrtles should be moved and planted while dormant. Plants should be mulched to a depth of 3 inches. Newly planted crape myrtle should be irrigated regularly for the first few weeks to aid in establishment. Trees with a trunk diameter greater than 1 inch benefit from regular irrigation for several months. Crape myrtle is very drought tolerant once established but moist soil or irrigation promotes growth. Fertilization will stimulate growth of young crape myrtles but established crape myrtles usually do not need fertilizer because root systems extend into lawns where they can absorb nutrients from applications of lawn fertilizers. Young crape myrtles characteristically develop multiple stems. If a crape myrtle is to be grown as a small tree, the smallest stems should be removed, leaving one main stem for a single-trunk specimen or 3 to 5 main stems for a multi-trunked tree. Crape myrtle generally requires little pruning. "Suckers" or water sprouts may develop along the lower portions of main stems or from roots. These should be removed when using crape myrtles as trees. Small twiggy growth on disease-susceptible shrub and tree forms should be thinned out from underneath and within the canopy. This keeps the trunk clean to allow air circulation and help prevent powdery mildew disease. Dwarf crape myrtles periodically grow tall shoots that must be removed to maintain the planting as a groundcover. Shoots of some dwarf cultivars occasionally die to the ground over winter, and dead wood should be removed in the spring. If pruning is necessary to improve plant shape or form, prune crape myrtle anytime after the leaves have fallen. However if plants are pruned too early in the fall, new growth may emerge and be killed by the first freeze. Plants are easy to prune while dormant since the branch structure is readily visible without foliage. Pruning while plants are dormant also will not interfere with flower bud formation since crape myrtle flowers form on new growth. Avoid annual or frequent hard pruning. Severe pruning can induce excess vegetative growth, basal sprouting, and fewer, but larger, flower panicles. It also spoils the beautiful winter branch structure on crape myrtle trees. Hope this answers all your questions. Best wishes with your landscape!

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