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Planting a Crepe/Crape Myrtle Tree, The Official State "Shrub"

Monday 11 June 2018 at 12:24 am.

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for June 7, 2018, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

            “It just doesn’t look like a crepe myrtle,” my wife would say, as she would walk by the potted tree we had just acquired and were told it was a crepe myrtle.

            “Oh, I’m sure it’s a crepe myrtle,” I would reply, thinking that it was just undernourished. To try to prove my point, I gave it some plant food, but it didn’t fill out and its limbs seemed very horizontal. It would take an ice storm to make crepe myrtle limbs I was familiar with look like that, so I decided it was probably just a different species from those my parents grew in Dime Box. My wife insisted that crepe myrtle branches did not grow like that.

            Ever since our ash tree, which protected my studio from the harsh afternoon sun died, we had been talking about replacing the ash with a crepe myrtle. I know it’s not the shadiest tree you can plant, and folks debate whether it is a tree or a shrub (to resolve the debate, horticulturists say that crepe myrtles range from dwarfs to large bushes to trees and can grow ten to thirty feet high depending on how you prune them). But it did produce beautiful, crinkled flowers, and, besides, it reminded me of my growing up years in Dime Box.

            Some folks in Dime Box had crepe myrtles that sprayed up from the ground like large fan-shaped bushes, but my parents trimmed ours to grow like trees. I don’t know what kind of crepe myrtle we had in those days, but I have since learned that the Malpighia glabra (wild crapemyrtle) is native to Texas only. It is not closely related to the Lagerstroemia indica which is native to Asia, and was brought to the United States from China. Most folks in Texas grow the Lagerstroemia indica, and Texans spell it “crape myrtle” (two words) or “crapemyrtle” (one word), both with an “a” rather than an “e.” (Sorry to insert that, but the spelling of words has always fascinated me ever since I was the Dime Box Spelling Bee Champ.)

            Some people today don’t like crepe myrtle and often get rid of them, but there is more good to be said about this tree/shrub than bad. So don’t try to talk me out of planting one!

            The crepe myrtle is considered by most to be the best landscape tree/shrub in Texas. It is drought tolerant, has beautiful bark, beautiful blossoms in a number of colors, grows in alkaline or acid soil, is fast-growing (grows at the rate of 12 to 18 inches a year), is shapeable, and has a long life-span. For me, I think the key here is the “shapeable” part. If you just stick it in the grown and let it grow wildly without pruning it or shaping it, you are going to have a gigantic, trashy-looking bush. Like a wisteria, you have to work with it if you want it to look its best, yet you can over prune a crepe myrtle to the extent you commit “crepe murder,” as Becca Badgett calls it. She says too much pruning from the top sends suckers shooting from the bottom of the tree or the roots.

            I should also add that the tree (mine will be a tree) likes a sunny location, and we plan to plant one in the sunniest location on our property. It doesn’t need rich soil; horticulturists say it’s adaptable to most soils. It does, however, like well drained soil, and will not do well planted in a soggy bog! I did read somewhere that it prefers a soil pH of 5.0 to 6.5, -- I have no idea what that means, but my wife is the new President of the Wharton Garden Club, so I’ll let her figure that out, if we have to add something.

            In spite of the fact that the Malpighia glabra is the Texas native, the Lagerstroemia indica is our official State shrub. It was officially designated as the State Shrub of Texas in an official proclamation in 1977. So I figure planting one in your yard is like planting a State Marker for the great State of Texas, and another reason we will plant one.

            Finally, as a poet, I am reminded that Joyce Kilmer attested in his famous poem that one will never see a poem as lovely as a tree, to which I add, “a tree as lovely as a crepe myrtle.”


Ray Spitzenberger is a retired English teacher and a retired Lutheran pastor.

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