Published on 09/15/97

Crape Myrtles Make Colorful Single-stem Trees

p> All you want is the perfect, well-behaved, unique tree for that small area or corner of the house. You also demand great summer color when little else highlights the landscape.

Do you lower your expectations or go with a plastic tree? You don't have to do either. You can use a hardy, tough, small tree that has great colors of your choice -- as long as your choice is lavender, pink or white. You even get to choose the height.

Crape myrtles are an effective component of all the landscapes that represent both the new and the traditional South. A common nonnative small tree or large shrub (Lagerstroemia genus), crape myrtle has showy summer flowers. It's easy to propagate, easy to grow and fairly easy to find at nursery outlets.

From China and Southeast Asia, crape myrtles were first recorded planted in Europe in 1759. Since then, people have planted them extensively across the Southeastern United States, the Caribbean, California and Hawaii.

Landscapers are increasingly using crape myrtles as small trees. Pruning the young trees into a single-stem tree form is easy.

The tree-form crape myrtle has great bark features that most people never get to see. And once you prune them into tree form, crape myrtles are easy to maintain. Single-stemmed crape myrtles can also be classically pollarded, or maintained in a small-tree form by regular pruning.

Fitting small trees in small spots and under tall objects is filled with problems. The small trees always seem to grow larger than expected. But with crape myrtles, many newly designed cultivars top out at a specific height. You can pick the flower color and the tree height in one choice.

Here are a number of crape myrtle cultivars and their flower color. These National Arboretum selections will respond well to pruning into a tree form and are resistant to foliage mildew.

This is not a complete list. Check availability, color choices and other cultivars. On all cultivars, you'll have to train branches early and prune out stems to get the beautiful single-stem look.

Crape myrtles that grow about 15 feet high include Apalachee (light lavender), Comanche (dark pink), Lipan (lavender), Osage (clear pink), Sioux (pink), Tuscarora (dark pink), Tuskegee (dark pine) and Yuma (lavender).

Cultivars that reach about 20 feet high include Miami (dark pink), Potomac (clear pink) and Wichita (lavender).

And crape myrtles that grow to 25 feet tall include Biloxi (pale pink), Muskogee (light lavender), and Natchez (white).

If your view of crape myrtles is a multistem, hack-trimmed shrub, expand your mind and landscape options. Small trees are great and easy, if trained correctly.

Kim Coder is a forester with the University of Georgia Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources.