Fire on Ice: The New Crape Myrtles

When crape myrtles were first planted in the Southeast in the mid-1700s, they were instant hits because of their bright, dependable summer blooms. Today, these beauties are still the darlings of many landscapes in our area, but now there are cultivars that show off not only during the hottest of seasons but also through the cold of winter.

The original crape myrtles that graced colonial gardens in the South were from China and Korea and botanically listed as Lagerstroemia indica selections. And while they were flowering floosies in the summer, come winter, their bare gray branches blended in with the rest of the bland landscape.

However, in the mid-1950s, selections of the Japanese crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia faurei) were introduced into Southern gardens because they were more resistant to a common crape problem, powdery mildew. As a bonus, many of these crape myrtles also sported sassy, colorful trunks and limbs that simmered in intense shades of burnt orange, warm brown or rust red as the bark exfoliated.

Starting in the 1960s, breeders at the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C., began crossing the two crape myrtle species to bring out the best traits of both, and they succeeded in a big way with their Indian Tribe Series. Named after Native American tribes, several cultivars in this group show off stunning bark colors. During the shortest days of the year, in the light of the low sun, the hot hues of the trunks and branches lick at the chilled air like frosty flames, providing gardeners with bright botanical cheer in the cold winter.

In the summer, the trunk of a ‘Natchez’ crape myrtle gives a hint of the beauty to come … which occurs late in the year as the bark peels off to reveal its warm glow.

‘Natchez’ is considered one of the best in the series for strong bark color. It simmers in a cinnamon brown. This white-flowering crape also makes a tall, statuesque statement — growing up to 30 feet in height. ‘Choctaw’ will grow just as tall and has a comparable bark color but sports vivid pink blooms instead in the summer. Other crapes similar in size and appealing bark are ‘Biloxi’ (with pale pink flowers), ‘Muskogee’ (light purple) and ‘Miami’ (pinkish coral).

However, not all yards are blessed with enough space to give a 30-foot crape myrtle room to expand to its full glory. But there are selections from the Indian Tribe Series that restrain their heights to around 15 feet tall — and even less with judicious prunings. ‘Apalachee’, with its pleasing lavender flower and handsome chestnut-colored bark, is a good example. The trunk and branches of ‘Osage’ have similar coloration, but this beauty shows off warm pink blooms in the summer.

Need an even smaller crape? Consider the 10-foot-tall ‘Pecos’ with its mid-pink flowers and mottled reddish-brown bark. ‘Cheyenne’ grows to a similar size, but it has light reddish-brown bark and showers the summer with a flower fountain of solid red.

With fall giving way to winter, now is a good time to plant crape myrtles. But while their summer flowers are the main reason many buy such woody ornamentals, with these special crapes, their handsome bark can’t be ignored. The Indian Tribe Series of crape myrtles, as well as other similar recent introductions, has the magic of bringing fire to the coldest times of the year, so why not warm up to the idea and include one or more in your landscape?

L.A. Jackson is the former editor of Carolina Gardener magazine.

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