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March 29, 2013--The beautiful flowers of the crape myrtle are as sure a sign of summer’s arrival as outdoor barbecues, watermelons and homemade ice cream. Across the south, few plants can color our sultry summer landscapes like the stately crape myrtle. Often known as “the flowering tree of 100 days”, crapes can take all the heat our summers here in central Texas can dish out without so much as a whimper.
Crape myrtles are available in a wide range of bloom colors including many shades of red, pink, lavender, purple and white. Perhaps the most well known color is the wonderful “Watermelon Red” seen throughout the area. Gardeners can choose from plants that are low growing and dwarf enough to be perfectly suited to a patio container or hanging basket, medium size specimens perfect for the back of a perennial border, and stately trees that reach over 30 feet tall.
As the growing season winds down and frosty days of late fall arrive, crapes continue to stand out, providing one of the few dependable sources of fall color in our central Texas landscapes. Bright yellow is their most prominent color, but shades of red, orange and even maroon can be seen.
Crapes offer the added feature of attractive bark. Their smooth exfoliating bark often reveals variations in color in shades of white, tan, cinnamon-brown, and brick red. This feature adds interest to the winter landscape when the blooms and leaves are a distant memory. Cultivars differ significantly in their bark color. If you are planting one of the larger cultivars, select one with a bark color that appeals to you. Be aware however, that most crapes with attractive bark won’t show their true bark colors until after a few years in the landscape.
Crapes love sunlight, preferably at least 6 hours of direct sun. Although tolerant of a range of soil types, they perform best when provided good drainage. Work some compost into the soil throughout the planting area, rather than just in the planting hole. They will grow and bloom better with some extra nutrition. Select a fertilizer low in phosphorus (the middle number) for best results. A 3-1-2 or 4-1-2 ratio product works fine. Apply a light application of fertilizer in late February or early March. If they lack vigor, they may benefit from another application in May. Keep them mulched to discourage weed competition and protect the soil surface.
Despite their toughness when it comes to withstanding a Texas summer, crape myrtles have two enemies among the notorious “disease and pestilence” crowd. Powdery mildew can become a disfiguring nuisance if left unchecked. The absolute best way to deal with this fungus it to not have to deal with it at all. There are many new hybrid crapes on the market that are resistant to powdery mildew. As a general rule, cultivars with the name of a native American tribe will be resistant to powdery mildew.
If you already have a powdery mildew susceptible crape myrtle growing on your property, you can manage the disease with a number of natural or low toxicity products containing potassium bicarbonate or neem oil. Synthetic options include the fungicides triadimefon (Bayleton) and triforine (Funginex).
Aphids are the second potential problem on crapes. They feed on the leaf sap and excrete a sticky substance known as “honeydew”, quite a pleasant name considering its origin! The honeydew falls onto the leaves below and supports the growth of a black sooty mold. Aphids are controllable by a number of means including dislodging them periodically with strong blasts of water, insecticidal soap sprays, and a number of other organic and synthetic insecticides.
I cannot end without a word about pruning. Crape myrtles are probably the most “butchered” plants in the landscape. It is a common practice to cut the new growth back to its point of origin each winter. This results in unsightly stubs, which ruin the natural shape and beauty of the plant and promote decay of the interior wood.
The preferred practice is to train the plant into a natural, gracefully branching form. This is accomplished by removing selected branches along the trunk or major limbs where they join another branch, rather than stubbing off the ends of all growth. Crapes really need very little if any pruning to look good and bloom well. Sucker shoots emerging from the base should be removed, along with shoots emerging from the lower trunk area. This is done to allow the natural beauty the smooth trunk(s) to be seen. Old bloom heads and twiggy growth can also be removed if you have a lot of time on your hands, cutting much of this growth back to “pencil size” shoots. Personally I think a mature crape myrtle that has been well trained really should hardly be pruned at all. During the summer season, spent bloom can be removed to promote better repeat blooming.
A properly trained crape myrtle develops a beautiful form and needs little pruning
This unfortunate type of pruning is known as "Crape Murder"
Article by Skip Richter, Travis County Extension Horticulturist, Texas AgriLife Extension Service
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