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Myrtle Mania


By Paul James

With all due respect to our beloved state tree — the redbud — I think the crape myrtle defines Tulsa and its environs better than any other tree. That’s not to say it’s my favorite tree, because it isn’t, but it’s certainly among my favorites, and it vaults to the top of the list when it’s ablaze in summer blooms, and in winter when its exfoliating bark becomes the star of the show.
I remember a time when essentially all crape myrtles on the market were destined to grow at least 15-feet tall, the choices in terms of flower color were limited, and the leaf color was pretty much the same no matter which variety you chose.
All that’s changed. And just in case you’re wondering what my favorite tree is, it’s the Ginkgo. Except when crape myrtles are in full bloom.
Shop Crape Myrtles
Is it crape or crepe? Because the flowers resemble crepe paper, crepe is the original spelling, and is still preferred by purists. But crape is more commonly used.

Plant Now

Spring and fall are the preferred times for planting nearly all trees. But crape myrtles are an exception. Their roots actually grow rapidly in warm soils, which means now is a great time to plant. Just make sure to water well throughout the summer months.
Crape myrtles are native to China and Korea. The first trees arrived in the U.S. in Charleston, North Carolina, in 1790s

So Many Sizes

The greatest thing about crape myrtles these days, as opposed to just a decade or so ago, is that there are so many sizes available, from less than two-footers to over 20-footers, and just about everything in between. And in addition to the familiar tree forms, there are some awesome shrub forms as well. In other words, there’s a spot somewhere in your garden for a crape myrtle, assuming it gets plenty of sun.

And Color Combos

Leaf colors are now available in green to reddish to purple to almost black, and although the basic flower colors haven’t changed all that much, the range of hues certainly has. Particularly striking are the varieties with nearly black leaves and white flowers selections. 

Ideal Growing Conditions

Crape myrtles will grow in decent soil so long as it drains well, but they don’t like wet feet. More than anything else, they need sun, and lots of it. They simply won’t grow well -- and more importantly, won’t flower well -- if grown in shade. 
In late winter, remove branches smaller than the diameter of a pencil, especially those in the interior of the tree, to promote good air circulation. Do not cut them back hard (even though you may see others doing just that), because it destroys the plant's natural form and creates ugly knots or knobs. Pruning suckers that form at the base of the trunks improves the look of the tree.
This black, sooty fungus is caused by insects, including aphids, whiteflies, and scale (see below). So if you get rid of the insects -- which primarily attack leaves -- you get rid of the mold.
Spray leaf surfaces with insecticidal soap, horticultural oil, neem oil, or spinosad and the problem should go away fairly quickly.
The second best way to prevent powdery mildew (which, by the way, is a fungus that looks just like it sounds), is to make sure plants have sufficient light and air circulation. The best way is to simply plant a resistant variety, particularly those with distinctly Native American names -- Arapaho, Comanche, Natchez, Sioux, for example -- as well as Dynamite, Red Rocket, and Pink Velour. Infected plants can be sprayed with horticultural oil.
Photo by Jim Robbins, Univ. of Ark. CES,
Bark scale is nasty. And ugly. The white to gray, felt-like scale insect responsible for the condition secretes honeydew, which then encourages the development of black sooty mold on branches and foliage. OSU continues to recommend scrubbing affected areas with mild dishwashing soap and water (a stiff nylon brush works well), followed by an application of horticultural oil or neem oil to smother any remaining adult insects and their eggs. 
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Tip Of The Week

Removing faded flowers from crape myrtles may encourage more blooms, but it’s a lot of work and the benefit is marginal.
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