Crepe myrtle is a fabled tree of U.S. states such as Georgia and South Carolina. Gardeners in some parts of the North can grow it, too, but they will have to lower their expectations. Which variety you choose also matters, based on what size or blossom color you are seeking (and on whether or not fragrance is important to you).
Taxonomy and Botany
The taxonomy of this plant is Lagerstroemia x Natchez. As with many of the widely-grown crepe myrtle trees used in landscaping, it is a hybrid derived from crossing L. indica with L. fauriei. Although originally from Asia, Lagerstroemia is naturalized in the Southeastern U.S. Natchez is the cultivar name.
Natchez crepe myrtles are deciduous shrubs or small trees.
Origin of Common Names
The leaves resemble those of true myrtles, Myrtus communis, thus the origin of the second half of the common name. As for the first half, the crinkly texture of the flower petals resembles crepe paper ("crape" is a widely used alternate spelling).
USDA Plant Hardiness Zones
Natchez crepe myrtles are cold-hardy to planting zone 6 (and often slightly beyond). However, in the northern reaches of their range, their growth will be restrained by the colder climate, keeping them in shrub form. They are considerably more popular in the South, where they grow much more vigorously.
In the North, the bush often puts on its best flowering display during unusually hot summers; other years, it may hardly flower at all. Winter's cold may not kill the plant there, but very little of it will remain alive above ground.
In the South, Natchez crepe myrtles grow as trees and can get to be over 30 feet tall. The foliage becomes a reddish-orange in fall. They have a reddish-brown bark that peels the way birch trees (Betula spp.) do, giving you winter interest. These trees bear white blooms.
As with most crepe myrtles, the flowers are the main selling point. They not only grow in striking clusters but also put on a display that lasts longer than that for most plants (mid-summer to fall). As a bonus, butterflies are attracted to the flowers. The blooms yield to fruits that are brownish and persist through winter.
Do not over-fertilize Natchez crepe myrtles. Excessive fertilizing can reduce blooming, as the plant uses the energy to increase leaf growth. In addition to reducing your viewing pleasure, the result is often winter injury. A common care problem for this plant is having the leaves turn brown, for which there can be a variety of reasons.
Sun and Soil Needs
The Natchez cultivar (and other types, as well) prefers full sun and well-drained soil. Exposure to full sun can help prevent some of the less mildew-resistant varieties of crepe myrtle trees from succumbing to the disease. Soil pH should range from 5.0 to 6.5.
Crepe myrtle trees, including Natchez crepe myrtles, make fine specimen plants. Used in groups, they can form decorative border plantings or privacy hedges. Since these specimens don't balk at being confined to tight areas, municipalities in the South often use them for street plantings.
Many cultivars of crepe myrtles, in addition to Natchez, have been developed and marketed, including the following (flower color and mature height given in parentheses):
- Bicolor (pink; a dwarf form, at just 2 to 4 feet)
- Cherokee (red; 10 feet)
- Acoma (white; 15 feet)
- Seminole (pink; 17 feet)
- Tuscarora (coral pink; 23 feet)
- Choctaw (pink; 27 feet)
Distinct from all of these is the parent of Natchez, Lagerstroemia fauriei. A 10-foot shrub that grows in zones 6 to 9, this kind of crepe myrtle stands out from the rest with fragrant flowers. It also fights off powdery mildew well.
Disease and Pruning
Very importantly, Natchez crepe myrtles (like L. fauriei) are highly resistant to mildew. With some other varieties, mildew can be a problem. However, pruning out branches that cross over other branches promotes airflow and reduces susceptibility to mildew. Another problem with this specimen is its tendency to draw aphids. Honeydew drops from aphids are not only unsightly on the plants themselves but also get all over your car, deck, and patio.
These trees usually produce multiple main stems. Many people, seeking to restrict the growth of the plants, prune crepe myrtle trees back severely in winter, in order to limit the plants to one main stem. But such pruning ruins their appearance and should be avoided in favor of selecting dwarf varieties. For non-dwarf varieties, limit your pruning to thinning to open up the plant. The best time to prune is early spring since the shrubs bloom on new wood.
Remove spent flower heads throughout summer (a process known as "deadheading") to "trick" crepe myrtle trees into continuing to bloom. Also, remove any suckers that appear. You may also find volunteer seedlings popping up all over your lawn, which is a nuisance and causes you extra weeding (unless you wish to transplant them).