Low Maintenance and Lovely
Story by L. Beth Bonifant | Photography by Devon Sinclaire | Summer 2013
Anyone who drives through Southern Maryland in the summer, particularly sections of Route 5, will be treated to a frilly, fabulous flowering display of blooming crape myrtles. These sweeping swaths of crapes have been planted in groves rather than the typical specimen style. Sometimes I think there are so many crape myrtles in Southern Maryland, they should replace the black-eyed Susan as the state flower!
Crape myrtles, or Lagerstroemias, are native to China. Introduced to the U.S. in the late 1700s, they arrived first to England, whose cooler temperatures and high rainfalls were not conducive. Southern Maryland’s annual heat, humidity and drought may not seem like the most hospitable environment, but crape myrtles love us! The common crape myrtle is hardy in zones 7 to 9, which puts us at the northern end of the range.
Undeniably show-stopping as they are, flowers are not the crape myrtle’s only attribute. Autumn leaf color is vibrant and varied, ranging from red, orange and yellow to purple. As a bonus, the leaves are small enough that they don’t require raking. Both beautiful and striking, the exfoliating bark provides prominent winter interest in the landscape. Eventually, the trunks become mottled or smooth. Left unpruned, crape myrtles develop a naturally appealing shape that can make an architectural statement. Renowned garden designer Piet Oudolf suggests, “Plants should look as good dead (dormant) as alive.” Check that box with crape myrtles.
This leads me to what some may consider a matter of controversy. Oh dear! Here goes … I’ll just say it: crape murder! Now I know no one intends to harm innocent crape myrtles, but when you get out your pruning weapon of choice, please repeat after me: “Stop! Don’t chop!” And, ‘Wait! Don’t whack!” Contrary to popular belief, lopping off the top of your crape myrtle will not contribute to bigger, better blooms. Besides, it can safely be said thatthe resulting stubs, nubs and clubs are not attractive. Valerie Grimm, store manager at The Greenery in Hollywood, Md. agreed. She joked about calling them “crappy crapes” before realizing how beautiful they can be without such a heavy-handed approach.
Crapes bloom on new growth and don’t need you to interfere. There are several factors that contribute to poor flower production. Crapes want to be in full sun, all day. Too much shade will decrease blooms. Surprisingly, too much nitrogen (fertilizer) and water can also result in reduced blooms. I mentioned how crapes love our hot and dry Southern Maryland summer; that wasn’t mere flattery.
There are varieties of crape myrtles in every size. Choose the mature height and spread for your particular site to eliminate or reduce the need to prune. When you absolutely feel duty calls, prune crapes appropriately using the following tips.
When planting a crape in the mid-to large mature size range (that’s 10 feet up to 30 feet), choose three to five of the best trunks to begin grooming. Cut off any additional stems at ground level and continue to remove suckers that try to come up at the base. Crapes are very late leafing out in spring, providing an extended time to examine your tree’s form and make decisions about what to remove. As the tree grows, eliminate lower branches until the canopy is high enough to mow and walk under. Meanwhile, consider cutting off all branches smaller than a pencil, particularly inward-facing ones. This opens up the canopy and increases air circulation. Remember, crapes bloom on new growth, so you won’t be compromising your flowers.
If you have an existing crape myrtle that is blocking your view, prune as instructed above to “lift” the canopy rather than attempting to improve your view by “pushing” the top of the tree down. In addition to large trees, there are also semi-dwarf crapes that become dense, spreading shrubs of five to 10 feet, and even miniature compact ones that remain in the two- to three-foot range. See below for names and sizes.
Let’s review. Crapes require very little pruning, watering or fertilizing. Hmm …. Well, now that you know how easy it can be to enjoy crape myrtles, just sit on your veranda and sip that mint julep. The good news is you are perfectly within your rights to do so! ♦
To obtain crape myrtles in Southern Maryland, visit or call the following nurseries:
The Greenery in Hollywood, Md., at 301-373- 6575
Wentworth Nursery in Prince Frederick at 410-535-3664
Charlotte Hall at 301-884-5292
Cream of the Crop in Charlotte Hall at 301-542-4430
Farm Valley Nurseries in Huntingtown and California, Md., at 410- 535-5818.