Crapemyrtles 101 with Gene Sumi

Our recent Crapemyrtle Festival featured a great talk on – naturally! – crapemyrtles.  Here were the highlights, and don’t miss Gene’s special instructions on pruning!

First, to qualify Gene on this subject – as if it’s needed – he’s grown crapemyrtles all his life, starting as a kid in California.  Gardening goes way back in the Sumi family, and Gene recounted to us his great-grandmother growing crapemyrtles, too.  Fun fact?  In Japan crapemyrtles are called “monkey slip trees” because kids trying to climb then – like monkeys – slip on the smooth bark.

Native to various places in East Asia, crapemyrtles came to the U.S. in the 19th Century via Europe, where they were beloved but don’t grow as well as they do here.  They’re sometimes called the “lilac of the South” because they thrive in our Southern states, where they sometimes retain their leaves through winter.  They grow well here in Maryland, but not farther north.   

Technically, crapemyrtles are shrubs, which means they’re multi-stemmed, with leafy branches starting from the ground.  Still, they can be trained into trees – more on that below. 

Size
They’re available in varieties with ultimate heights as low as 6 inches and as high as 30 feet tall.  So we should think of them as trees, shrubs, AND ground covers.  Also?  Great plants for containers. 

Bloom
They start blooming typically in late June and continue here in Maryland until late September.  That’s because they bloom on new wood, producing new buds on each new branch.  Gene says there’s a new variety called ‘Early Bird’ that starts blooming even earlier – in mid to late May.  And yes, we can increase the number of blooms by removing the old flowers (deadheading).

Bloom Colors  
They’re available in a great range of colors – deep to light red, several pinks, dark purple maroon, lavender and white. 

Fall foliage color 
Colors include bright yellow, wine purple, fiery red, yellow, and orange, depending on the variety.

Winter Beauty 
Exfoliating bark peels seasonally to reveal different colors of under-bark.  A popular variety known for its gorgeous winter bark is ‘Natchez.’

Siting
They perform best in full sun.  With fewer than 6 hours of sun per day, their growth is slower and they produce fewer leaves and flowers.  Gene says that most problems with crapemyrtles – an unusually trouble-free plant – are due to planting them in the wrong location, especially not giving them enough sun.

Pruning
Pruning is properly done to crapemyrtles in their first few years, to direct their growth, and not thereafter  except under special circumstances, such as to remove damaged branches or to clear a sidewalk.  Don’t try to prune them to force them to be taller than their natural height – just choose the right variety for the desired height!  If/when you DO prune, do it in spring.

Now about the special pruning to direct growth:

  • For a nice multi-stemmed crapemyrtle between 10 and 20 feet tall (a very popular choice), just a bit of pruning is required.  Choose 3-5 well-spaced main stems to keep, removing the others.  Measure about 4.5 to 5 feet from the ground and cut there, above the nearest outward-pointing leaf node.  Then in 2 or so years, when the new branching has grown a bit, make a second cut about 2 feet above the “Y” branching made by the previous cut.  The result will be a plant with a 6′ minimum clearance – perfect for walking under. No other major cutting should be needed on your crapemyrtle after that – only maintenance-type pruning – to remove dead or broken branches, etc. 
  • To create a tree form with one of the taller varieties, simply remove the bottom branches, leaving one strong lead stem.  Though the plant will start off as a shrub, varieties with ultimate heights of at least 20 feet can be turned into great-looking “trees.”

Severe pruning back to the same spot every year – pollarding or “crape murder” – is a bad practice and totally unnecessary. 

Pests
Pests include aphids and Japanese beetles but not in great enough numbers to make a plant unsightly or threaten its life.  The worst pest afflicting crapemyrtles are voles, which can severely harm the plant by gnawing at its roots.

Other Care? 
Not really.  Crapemyrtles are very drought-tolerant (after the first two seasons) and not fussy about soil.   They don’t need feeding, either.  They’re stars in the low-maintenance garden.

Notice yellow leaves? 
Gene says customers have brought him handfuls of dropped leaves from the lower branches to ask what’s wrong and the answer is – nothing.  It’s totally normal for the plant to shed some of its leaves, as new growth shades some of them.

Mulch NOT to Use
Plant physiologist Frank Gouin happened to be in the audience during Gene’s talk and added a great tip for crapemytle care – don’t use wood chip mulch around them because wood chips can leach Nitrogen from the soil and cause leaf drop.  (Gene agrees, saying wood chips are best on paths only.)  Mulch made from other parts of trees – bark or leaves – is fine.

Varieties
Varieties developed by the National Arboretum are very popular, with good reason – they have good resistance to mildew, and particularly good-looking bark.  They can be identified by their American Indian-based names – like Natchez, Sioux, Comanche and Pokomoke, which is the top-seller at Homestead.  These excellent varieties are thanks to the good horticultural efforts of the late Dr. Donald Egolf.

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