It is that time of year when wherever you look, crape myrtles are strutting their stuff. I’ve been known to favor them in certain design situations – when clients request them (assuming they have enough sun), when I want a tree whose size can be kept in check, and when I want four-season interest in a sunny site with no irrigation.
A trio of white 'Natchez' crape myrtle trees frame the entry walk to this house in Chevy Chase.
While ‘Natchez,’ which bears white blooms, is my personal favorite, one of my favorite instructors in my landscape design course used to say, “What’s the point of having a tree that flowers in summer when everything else is past bloom, if you can’t have COLOR?”
A pink crape myrtle, possibly 'Tuscarora'
Recently, however, I’ve been noticing how commonly these trees are used in commercial or public spaces, for screening or to provide a colorful setting for seating areas. Here is an “allee” of ‘Natchez’ crape myrtles lining a pedestrian/biking path in downtown Bethesda, Maryland.
A row of Natchez crape myrtles screens a parking lot from a bike path in suburban Maryland.
On my trip home last weekend from our local Giant grocery store in Silver Spring, I saw crape myrtles used in three different ways. One was lining the sidewalk in planter squares along two rows of restaurants, coffee shops and dry cleaning establishments. Anchoring this ‘allee’ were two other groupings. One was by some outdoor tables at a Caribou Coffee shop, screening patrons’ views of the busy street beyond.
Pink crape myrtles (cultivar unknown) provide a welcome screen for outdoor dining tables in busy downtown Silver Spring, MD
Across from it was this trio of beauties, surrounded by some Knockout roses and striped zebra grass, neither of which seemed to be performing as well as the crape myrtles.
Dark pink crape myrtles in a shopping center in Silver Spring.
The actual blossoms were a bit lighter than this picture shows (the trees were in full shadow at this point). But they were definitely a hot pink, as opposed to the lighter lavender-pink of the ones across the way at the coffee shop. Which led me to wonder why whoever designed these areas had chosen different cultivars, and ones that arguably clash in terms of their colors?
And even closer to home, here’s a small pedestrian island at a busy intersection that I see on my way to work most mornings.
A deep pink-purple crape myrtle in a small pedestrian island on the border between Washington, DC and Chevy Chase MD. Note the matching-colored phlox in the foreground!
I understand why these trees are popular. The many varieties developed at the National Arboretum over the years, named for various Native American tribes, are mildew-resistant and offer interest in all four seasons. They bloom at a time (late summer) when other parts of the garden may be past their prime; they thrive on hot weather and are drought-resistant, once established; they have great fall color
Fall foliage on crape myrtles is spectacular.
and exfoliating bark. Their down sides are few: the blossoms are messy when they fall, requiring diligence if you plant them near a patio or other hard surface; and they need to be planted (at least in this area) no later than the end of October (and even that is pushing it).
The Arboretum has a separate section where they trial these trees, and includes them also among the plantings in the Gotelli Collection, where they work surprisingly well. Here’s Lagerstroemia ‘Osage,’ photographed at the Arboretum several years ago,
An 'Osage" crape myrtle in bloom.
and a shot of its gorgeous exfoliating bark.
Exfoliating bark makes crape myrtles truly wonderful four-season trees.
I suppose their low-maintenance nature, and the ability to choose among cultivars ranging from shrub size to 20-30′ (‘Natchez’ and a few of the other varieties) is what accounts for their apparent increasing popularity outside of residential landscapes. I’d be interested to know if any readers in Zones 7 and warmer (where these trees are hardy) see them often outside of home gardens.
For more information on the care of Lagerstroemia, visit this part of the National Arboretum’s website.