Columns written by Greg Grant and a Smith Co. Master Gardener which appear each Sunday on the Gardening page in the Tyler Morning Telegraph, are posted here.
Crape myrtles are beautiful, tough survivors
- By Greg Grant, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service – July 14, 2019
“Deservedly one of the most popular shrubs in America. In the South it takes the place of the lilac of the North, but is far more
Gilbert Onderdonk’s 1898–99 Mission Valley Nurseries catalog, Nursery, Texas
Every self-respecting gardener knows that you grow lilacs in the North and crape myrtles in the South. Even New York’s Liberty Hyde Bailey knew this. In his 1917 “Standard Cyclopedia of Horticulture” he stated that “The crape myrtle, Lagerstroemia indica, is to the South what the lilac and the snowball are to the North — an inhabitant of nearly every home yard.”
The crape myrtle received its common name for its superficial resemblance (although no relation) to the true myrtle (Myrtus) and for its crape-like flowers. The Latin name of the genus, Lagerstroemia, was given to the tree in 1759 by the Swedish botanist Linnaeus, in honor of his friend Magnus von Lagerstroem (1696–1759), director of the Swedish East Indies Co. and an avid naturalist.
There are about 55 species of Lagerstroemia, all native to Asia and the Pacific Islands. Of all of these, only three are cold hardy through most of the South — L. indica, L. fauriei and L. subcostata, with L. indica, from China, the only one common in Southern gardens. It is likely the most popular small flowering tree in the entire South. It has been cultivated in its native Southeast Asia for thousands of years.
Our crape myrtle was supposedly introduced to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, England, in 1759. Its exact date of introduction into the United States is unknown. Credit is often given to Andre Michaux, who established a nursery around Charleston, South Carolina, about 1786. Apparently George Washington was one of the first to attempt to grow crape myrtles. Records at Mount Vernon show that a ship arrived in Philadelphia in April 1799 carrying two plants and seed of L. regime, as well as seeds of L. indica.
Bernard M’Mahon mentioned L. indica in The American Gardener’s Calendar in 1806. Crape myrtle was listed among the plants cultivated in 1811 at the famous Elgin Botanic Garden in New York. It wasn’t long before it began to spread across the South. Records at Prince Nursery in New York show that they were offering the crape myrtle for sale in 1827. Thomas Affleck mentioned the crape myrtle in a letter to the editor of the Natchez Daily Courier in 1854 but didn’t have it listed in his 1851-52 Southern Nurseries catalog in Washington, Mississippi. Montgomery Nurseries, of Montgomery, Alabama, offered the crape myrtle in its 1860 catalog. Langdon’s Nurseries, near Mobile, offered four varieties (pink, purple, crimson and white) in its 1881–82 catalog. In Texas, T.V. Munson’s Denison Nurseries listed pink, crimson and purple crape myrtle in 1885, while in Frelsburg J. F. Leyendecker’s Pearfield Nursery catalog of 1888 said it was “too well known to require description.”
Almost every abandoned homesite in the South is marked by at least one surviving crape myrtle. It always fascinated me as a child to see the crape myrtles and Narcissus growing by themselves in the middle of pastures. This toughness and survivability lead to their use as a frequent cemetery ornamental and a common urban street tree.
Greg Grant is the Smith County horticulturist for the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. He is author of Texas Fruit and Vegetable Gardening and co-author of Heirloom Gardening in the South and The Rose Rustlers. You can read his “Greg’s Ramblings” blog at arborgate.com, his “In Greg’s Garden” in each issue of Texas Gardener magazine (texasgardener.com), or follow him on Facebook at “Greg Grant Gardens.” More research-based gardening information from the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service can be found at aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu and plantan swers.com.
The plant is non-blooming, but its bright yellow-edged-with-green leaves and carmine red leaf stems more than compensate for the lack of flowers. The large palmate leaves are stunning. The shrub can easily reach 4 to 5 feet high, and as wide, in a season. It is a heat lover whose leaves can tolerate full sun without burning, as well as the reflected heat from concrete or bricks.
It can be grown in full sun or partial shade, but colors best in full sun. Water needs are moderate. Once established, it can tolerate some drought, but benefits from supplemental watering. Don’t overdo it. The plant does not like wet feet. Acidic or alkaline soils are not a problem as long as there is good drainage. A time-release fertilizer should be applied at planting. Since the plant grows rapidly, subsequent applications at monthly intervals are beneficial. It is relatively pest free, with the possible exception of spider mites. Deer avoid it but have been known to eat it.
Variegated tapioca lends a tropical look, but is a show stopper in any type of garden. As an accent plant, it grows well in a large pot on the patio or in the ground. Multiple plantings should be at least 4 feet apart for a striking hedge or flowerbed backdrop.
Since it will show damage when night temperatures fall below 50 degrees, and will die in a hard freeze, it must be overwintered in a heated greenhouse or even brought inside near a sunny window. On the other hand, it can be propagated by stem cuttings.
Variegated tapioca is a valuable addition to any garden. You can see one in the IDEA Garden this summer. For more information, check out TexasSuperstar.com or Google variegated tapioca.
The Smith County Master Gardener program is a volunteer organization in connection with the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service.