A History of the Crepe Myrtle

By Dave Whitinger, July 14, 2015

In the early summer of the year 1997, I accepted a job with Red Hat Software, which involved a relocation to the area near Raleigh, North Carolina. I was tasked with building and directing their technical support department, and as a young 22 year old programmer, I was thinking about nothing but my future in technology. Upon arriving at the office, though, all thoughts of software left my mind as I walked under a canopy of beautiful trees, blooming profusely in white, pink and lavender blooms, filling the area with the sweetest fragrance I've ever experienced. Standing on a thin carpet of fallen blooms, with a canopy of color above me, I immediately fell in love with the Crepe Myrtle tree, and since then have set out to collect them all.

Crepe Myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica) was introduced into the United States around the time of its founding. It was quickly propagated and grown throughout the south. The only species grown in the US was Lagerstroemia indica, which blooms for a long time but is quite susceptible to powdery mildew. For over 200 years this shrub has been bred and improved cultivars released.

In the 1950's, John Creech (of the US National Arboretum) undertook an expedition to Japan looking for interesting new plants, and he sent back seeds from the Japanese crepe myrtle, Lagerstroemia fauriei. 5 of these seedlings were planted at the North Carolina State University, on the site where their arboretum now stands. One of those seedlings exhibited an attractive upright form with interesting bark that exfoliates to reveal a smooth trunk mottled with orange, white and brown colors. This selection was later named 'Fantasy' and is still available in the trade.

Well, all five of the seedlings performed well and although their flowers didn't last very long, all their other advantages made them promising specimens for breeding purposes. The US National Arboretum got right to work, crossing these new seedlings with the popular Lagerstroemia indica cultivars already in cultivation. The result was a flood of new cultivars, all given Native American names like Natchez and Arapaho. So when you see a crepe myrtle with names like this, you'll know it's a L. fauriei x L. indica cross. The tree will usually be taller and the powdery mildew probably won't affect them in your garden.

'Muskogee' is a 30 foot shrub with light lavender blooms. 'Natchez', its twin sister, is identically shaped but with white blooms. They bloom simultaneously and make a tremendous pairing in the landscape. 'Zuni' is a semi-dwarf with purple flowers and grows to 8 feet. The very best red colors in this series come from 'Tonto' and 'Arapaho', and these two are the standard red colored crepe myrtles and both are excellent.

In Oklahoma, mid 1990's, Dr. Carl Whitcomb grew over 65,000 seedlings of Crepe Myrtles, treating them with a cocktail of strange chemicals designed to introduce mutations and probably also polyploidism. From those seedlings, he introduced a pile of exciting new cultivars, including 'Raspberry Sundae', 'Dynamite', 'Red Rocket', and others. His work continues into the present day and you'll find many of his new and old cultivars in garden centers all over the south.

Today much of the excitement around crepe myrtle breeding is in the creation of black leafed cultivars. Around 10 years ago, Dr. Cecil Pounders (again of the US National Arboretum) irradiated seeds with gamma radiation, and ended up with 'Delta Jazz', the first black leafed cultivar. The genetics for black leaves are heritable, and not long after that he released 5 more new black cultivars as the Ebony series. Ebony Flame is striking with its bright red blooms, and Ebony and Ivory similarly amazes with its pure white blooms set against that dark foliage. There is a company selling these Ebony series under a different name, so watch out for that confusing situation.

In 2015 Ball Ornamentals released and is promoting Dr. Michael Dirr's Enduring Summer series, which includes reblooming cultivars in red, fuchsia, pink, white, and lavender. The list of exciting new crepe myrtles goes on and on but space prohibits me from continuing. With all this the future of crepe myrtles looks bright indeed.

Crepe Myrtles want full sun with fertile, well drained and slightly acidic soil. Plant in the fall or spring and you'll get quick growth. They respond well to nitrogen in early spring but you should withhold fertilizer once blooms begin. Once blooms finish, you'll get seedpods that you can leave or trim away. Some cultivars may rebloom after deadheading.

Once fall arrives and the leaves fall off, you may prune them, but be cautious against aggressive pruning. You've probably seen those ugly stumps left behind when unthinking homeowners or landscapers take heavy saws to their trees, cutting them down at eye level, leaving horribly ugly scars. This act, dubbed by many as Crepe Murder, is a real eyesore to any region in which it is practiced. My method of proper pruning is more similar to what you'd do with fruit trees. Remove water spouts and internal crossing branches. Anything smaller than a pencil can be removed. If it's removal would require a saw, it's probably too big to be removed. Listen to the tree: it will tell you how it wants to grow, and then you can help it accomplish that goal with careful pruning and shaping.

Crepe Myrtles are easy to propagate. Seeds saved in the fall should be placed in a ziplock bag with some potting soil or vermiculite, very lightly moistened and placed in the refrigerator for 60 days. Afterward, remove from the fridge and sow as normal, and germination will occur within 2 weeks. The seedlings are very susceptible to cold, so keep them in a nice warm environment during and after germination. Softwood cuttings from newly grown suckers usually root with little trouble. Rooting hormone and a mist system promote quicker rooting. You can also propagate with semi-hardwood cuttings, or hardwood cuttings over winter.

So, is it spelled "Crepe Myrtle" or "Crape Myrtle"? The flower is named after the blooms, which resemble crepe paper, and because of that I have always spelled it as "crepe". Historically, though, "Crape" has been preferred and either spelling is accepted. For my part, I feel that we should stick with "crepe" since it is an accurately descriptive name, plus "crape" just looks like an ugly name. :-) 

Edit to add: David Creech of Stephen F. Austin University contacted me and said that in Texas the name "crapemyrtle" is settled on following long discussions and debate. He said the thinking was that "crape myrtle" implies it's a myrtle so they combined the words together to make a one-word common name. He and Allen Owings are two horticulturists who I respect, and they both call it "crapemyrtle" so maybe I should conform and change my ways. I'll think about it. :-) 


Our plants database at Garden.org currently lists 440 cultivars of crepe myrtles, and we have lots of pictures, data points and comments that you can read. All the cultivars mentioned in this article are in the database and you can see them all at /plants/group/crepe-myrtles/ .  

 
Comments and discussion:
Thread TitleLast ReplyReplies
Crepe Myrtle hybridizers missed it? by LariAnnAug 31, 2015 8:58 PM29
Great Info by donnabkingJul 18, 2015 12:59 PM1
Crepe Myrtle: Watermelon Pink by hazelnutJul 17, 2015 3:31 PM0
I think Crepe Myrtles are beautiful. by frostweedJul 15, 2015 3:59 AM1

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