Planted in a warm spot, crape myrtles can fill your garden with late-summer bloom.
The botanical name Lagerstroemia doesn’t mean anything to most of us. Yet these small-scale trees with sumptuous late-summer flowers deserve to be better known and more widely grown.
Crape myrtle, as they’re more commonly known, have flowers so exotic-looking you can imagine them strung into leis more easily than flowering in a Seattle-area garden. Yet hardy they are, with a size and profile well-suited to urban and suburban gardens. Heat-lovers called the “lilac of the South,” crape myrtles enjoy growing in parking strips, where they bloom luxuriantly in the reflected heat off sidewalk and street.
Because our springs seem nonexistent lately, especially this year with the second coldest April on record followed by near-frosts in early June, I wonder why we’re still growing so many spring-flowering ornamental cherries and crabapples. Late August into September is usually as good as it gets in the weather department, so why not plant our gardens to bloom when we’re out there to enjoy them?
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The first time I ever saw a Lagerstroemia it was root end up, having just been dug for transplanting. Fifteen or so years ago, the curator for the University of Washington’s Center for Urban Horticulture planted a trial bunch of the new crape myrtles being bred by the National Arboretum for mildew-resistance.
Unfortunately, the center’s new collection languished. Being a horticulture center, someone figured out the crape myrtles needed a warmer location. “Once they were moved to the parking lot, they really took off,” says grounds manager Fred Hoyt. “It was planned as a test plot, but it’s turned into a lovely display garden.”
At home in his Ballard-area parking strip, Hoyt grows a pink-flowering Lagerstroemia ‘Sioux.’ “It’s multitrunked and has great bark; the flowers are a bonus,” he says. “It almost blooms every year, and sometimes carries through.” Which brings us to the crux of the matter: Some bloom more abundantly in our climate than others. If you’re interested in growing one of these little beauties, head on down to the center’s east parking lot (at 3501 N.E. 41st St.). All the trees are labeled and in bloom now through early October.
If seeing all those crape myrtles enchants you, cross the lake to Wells Medina Nursery, which is carrying an especially large and diverse selection of Lagerstroemia this year. “Crape myrtles are a fabulous alternative specimen tree,” says owner Wendy Wells. “They have such grace.” She’s brought many of the newer, mildew-resistant cultivars into the nursery, including her favorite, ‘Pink Velour.’
Just like the quest to figure out which tomatoes reliably ripen in our climate, choosing a crape myrtle comes down to which ones flower in our all-too-brief-and-chilly summers. Because no matter how sophisticated their silhouette, how handsome their exfoliating bark or bright their fall color, we want those glorious flowers.
In the interests of full disclosure, I should tell you that crape myrtles leaf out very late. You wouldn’t want to plant them near other late-leafers like golden locust or ‘Summer Chocolate’ mimosa, or you’ll end up with a garden of bare sticks all the way through May.
I sought out a definitive opinion from Seattle’s arbor guru, Arthur Lee Jacobson. The verdict from a guy who has made studying trees his lifelong mission: “Crape myrtle, for those who have the warm, sunny location, is clearly hands-down the best late-summer-blooming tree for Seattle.”
Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of “A Pattern Garden.” Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.