This article originally appeared in the Sept. 17, 2002, issue of CAPPER'S.
Sometimes referred to as the lilac of the South, the common crape myrtle, Lagerstroemia indica, brightens up gardens all over the southern part of the United States as a large shrub or a small tree, which can reach a height of 30 feet.
The crape myrtle brings welcome color at a time when few other trees and shrubs are sharing their best offerings. Crape myrtles bloom from July through September. Flowers are clustered together to give a large mass of color ranging from white to pink to scarlet, depending on the variety.
Even if this plant doesn't produce the annual floral display, it's a nice addition to the garden. The bark becomes extremely attractive as the plant ages. As the plant grows, pieces of the trunk scale off, exposing lighter shades of bark in irregular patterns. The fall foliage colors include yellow, orange and red on the same plant.
In most horticultural reference volumes, the crape myrtle is listed as hardy in Zones 7 to 9. This area would include locations that are south of Kansas, Missouri and Kentucky, for example. In areas that are colder than Zone 7, crape myrtle will sustain winter injury.
Gardeners who live in the colder climates can still enjoy the crape myrtle, though. I live in Zone 5 and use this plant often. I use it as a perennial rather than a woody shrub. Nearly every winter, the plant's stems are killed, but the plant survives. I simply cut it to the ground each spring. Crape myrtle blooms on the current season's growth, so the blooms are not lost by the winterkill.
I prefer dwarf varieties of crape myrtle in Kansas. Larger varieties tend to grow long, gangling stems that look out of place. The following dwarf varieties grow 2 1/2 feet tall by 3 feet wide for me each year:
Crape myrtle should be planted in a location that receives a lot of winter sun in northern locations. A spot next to a south- or west-facing wall will reflect the winter sun and keep the area a little warmer than an area out in the open. I prefer to plant crape myrtle in the spring, so the plant is well-established for its first Kansas winter.
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