- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 20, 2005

The crape myrtle is a botanical specimen anyone could love, if only because it seems to love just about everyone — and nearly every landscape.

This breed is special because of its variety and versatility, being hardy, decorative and adaptable. The bark can be even more beautiful than the blossoms, ranging from light gray to cream to cinnamon and other shades of brown. Some crape myrtle species have had their bark compared to an especially colorful animal’s coat, domestic and wild.

That isn’t to say these plants require as much care as a domestic pet, although they can give plant lovers a great deal of pleasure and pride.

While the crape myrtle is often regarded chiefly as a Southern plant, more than 30 varieties have been “tamed” to ensure their hardiness in the mid-Atlantic region’s fickle climate through some pioneering work done in the 1960s and 1970s at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Arboretum.

What’s more, crape myrtles bloom for as long as six months in the Washington area, reaching their peak in late summer, just when people need a lift from the season’s oppressive heat. That is far longer than most of the other familiar flowering ornamental plants, such as viburnum, forsythia and azalea. The blossom colors can be white as well as several shades of pink and lavender. In addition, the leaves blaze forth with fall colors in late October and early November.

Scientists would seem to demean its beauty when they identify the plant — of the genus Lagerstroemia — as a shrub, but they argue knowledgeably, even though some varieties grow to a height of 30 feet or more. (A few of the several dozen known varieties are just 2 or 3 feet tall.) Technically, shrubs such as the crape myrtle are woody perennial plants having multiple permanent stems branching from near the ground.

If the District of Columbia had an official shrub in addition to its official tree — the scarlet oak — surely the crape myrtle would make the grade, being a tall, graceful plant that can withstand pollution from traffic and doesn’t need much care. Its oblong or rounded canopy top adds a special dimension to the grid of city streets and also provides an infusion of color. Also, to its credit, the hardier Lagerstroemia species can live 25 years or more.

Anyone contemplating the purchase of locally sired varieties can drop by the National Arboretum, the botanical preserve in the District’s Northeast, to survey examples of plants bred there since the 1960s and 1970s to be disease resistant. The arboretum’s Web site — www.usna.usda.gov/PhotoGallery/CrapemyrtleGallery — gives the varietal names as well as descriptions from Acoma to Zuni. American Indian designations were chosen simply to identify the locally bred hybrid varieties, says Margaret Pooler, the arboretum’s research geneticist in charge.

The very smallest on the list are the Chickasaw and the Pocomoke, Ms. Pooler says, and the largest are Natchez and Kiowa. Natchez is identified on the site as “the undisputed queen of crapemyrtles,” with a splendid crown that often spreads as much as 35 feet. Kiowa, Ms. Pooler adds with scientific precision, is not a hybrid like the rest of the arboretum varieties but was grown from seedlings sent from elsewhere.

“Crape myrtles are hard to kill as long as you have the right climate,” she says. “They like well-drained soil and, of course, adequate moisture when newly planted.”

Certain species better adapted to tropical climes are liable to freeze in colder areas of the north. They are in danger in Zone 5.” (The District and parts of Virginia are in the warmer Zone 7 on the horticultural scale.) Crape myrtles don’t do well as house plants, she adds, mainly because they need a period of dormancy to thrive. Then, too, indoor light isn’t strong enough.

“All landscape needs can be met by one of the various crapemyrtle. They can serve as shade trees, large enough for a child’s small swing, or a singing spot of color in the drab yard of a factory or warehouse,” writes Alabama horticulturalist David Byers in his book “Crapemyrtle: A Grower’s Thoughts.” The book is a lovingly detailed account of the species and a guide to its care. (Hint: Most varieties thrive best in full sun, and only judicious pruning is advised.)

Because the choice of varieties is so great, care must be taken to pick only those that suit a particular site, horticulturalists warn. Trimming at the wrong time of year, such as during the growing season, can keep the plant from flowering, says a spokesman for Homestead Gardens in Davidsonville, Md., which sponsors a Crape Myrtle Festival in July.

Ms. Pooler adds that crape myrtles, unlike most other plants, are best transplanted in the spring so their roots have a chance to become established.

The plant flourishes best in mild environments and can be found in such far-flung countries as Iraq, India and Japan and was “an important plant in China before the time of recorded history,” Mr. Byers writes.

Introduced in the United States around 1750, it grew especially well in the South. Ms. Pooler surmises that it continues to be popular because it is easy for a grower to produce and propagates well from cuttings.

One slight handicap is the controversy surrounding the correct spelling of its name. The National Arboretum refers to the plant with one word — crapemyrtle — to distinguish it from the true myrtle plant (genus Myrtus). Most nurseries use two words, the most common reference. Crape is alternatively spelled crepe because to many people the crinkly bloom and peeling bark remind them of crepe paper.

A national Crape Myrtle Society is being formed, in part because of the efforts of an enthusiast named Neil Sperry who has a horticultural radio show in McKinney, Texas, a town of some 50,000 people just north of Dallas that calls itself the crape myrtle capital of the world.

“No other plant is so versatile. There is a variety for every use, and every one has a different shape,” says Mr. Sperry, talking by phone about plans to build a 7-acre collection of some 140 to 150 varieties. “And if Dr. Don Egolf [a pioneering scientist at the National Arboretum, now deceased] had not done his work on the crape myrtle, none of us would be able to do what we are doing.”

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