Taxonomy and Botany of Natchez Crepe Myrtles
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 Lagerstroemia indica with Lagerstroemia 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, "Crape Myrtle" or "Crepe Myrtle"
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 suggests c-r-e-p-e paper; indeed, the latter spelling is almost as widely used as c-r-a-p-e. Both are used here to reflect that fact.
USDA Plant Hardiness Zones
Natchez crepe myrtles are cold-hardy to planting zone 6. However, in the Northern reaches of their range (and slightly beyond), they are often treated as herbaceous perennials and will be more shrub-like in appearance. They are much more prevalent in the Southern United States, where they grow much more vigorously. It was not by accident that this gardener's own plant, which grows in USDA zone 5 (slightly beyond the suggested growing-zone range), put on its best flowering display ever during an extremely hot summer; other years, it has hardly flowered at all.
Characteristics of the Plant
Natchez crepe myrtles can grow to be over 30 feet high in the South. The foliage becomes a reddish-orange in fall. The bark peels off attractively, rather like that of birches, adding 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 put on a display that lasts longer than that for most plants (mid-summer to fall). The blooms yield to fruits that are brownish and persist through winter.
Plant Care Tips
Do not over-fertilize Natchez crepe myrtles. Excessive fertilizing can reduce blooming, as the plant uses the energy to increase foliar growth. In addition to reducing your viewing pleasure, the result is often winter injury, as well. A common care problem for this plant is having the leaves turn brown, for which there can be various reasons. For pruning, see below, under "Disease and Pruning."
Sun and Soil Requirements, Uses in Landscape Design
The Natchez cultivar (and other types, as well) prefers full sun and a 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 be 5.0 - 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 types of crepe myrtles, in addition to Natchez, have been developed and marketed, including the following (flower color and mature height given in parentheses):
- Cherokee (red; 10 feet)
- Acoma (white; 15 feet)
- Seminole (pink; 17 feet)
- Tuscarora (coral pink; 23 feet)
- Choctaw (pink; 27 feet)
Disease, Pruning Crepe Myrtle Trees
Very importantly, Natchez crepe myrtles are highly resistant to mildew. With some other varieties, mildew can be a problem. However, pruning out branches that cross over other branches (thinning) promotes air flow and reduces susceptibility to mildew. Another problem with this specimen is its proclivity 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 diminishes their appearance and should be avoided in favor of selecting dwarf varieties. For non-dwarf varieties, limit your pruning to the "thinning" described above. The best time to prune is early spring.
Remove spent flower heads throughout summer (a process known as "deadheading") to "trick" crepe myrtle trees into continuing to bloom even more profusely. 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).