Sunday, August 7, 2011

Crapes by Chance

You would think, given the summer heat in Kansas, that crape myrtles, those southern summer stalwarts, would be an ideal plant to brighten up the August doldrums.  And in fact, they are a blessing in the hot times, but due to the split personality of the Kansas climate, it is too cold here in winter to see them reach their full potential as they do in Oklahoma, or even Wichita, where I've seen several hardy tree-sized specimens. 

Crape myrtles, you see, are a shrub in my 5B climate, not a tree.  I first began to add them to my garden a few years back when they suddenly began appearing in the local gardening stores.  Ten years ago, you never saw them for sale here, but I suppose that the onrushing tide of global warming has spread far enough north that the great commercial gods of Lowes and Walmart decreed that they might sell a few to Zone-defiant idiots, and so I began to purchase them when I saw them.   In fact, one of my best plant bargains ever was to purchase a 2 gallon 'Centennial Spirit' crape for $10 in August on sale at a big box store about 5 years back. At the time, I bought it merely because I couldn't resist the bright red, cheery color, but it has turned out to be my most dependable and tallest crape.  Every year, it grows up to become a 5 feet tall bush in my garden, and it opens up in early August to be a beacon in its border. 

'Centennial Spirit' (Lagerstroemia indica 'Centennial Spirit')  is a plant with just about everything going for it in my climate except for a partial lack of  winter hardiness.  It is attractive to bees,(see above) impervious to insect pests and disease, blooms its head off, and has a great fall color as you can see at the left (in a picture from late October, 2009). The deep green foliage is resistant to drought and never wilts.  Patented by Oklahoma State University in 1988, 'Centennial Spirit' is only listed as hardy to Zone 7, so I guess I should be thankful that it grows here at all, instead of bemoaning the fact that it won't ever reach its advertised 10-20 foot mature height as a true tree.  Alas, however, like every other crape I grow, it dies back to the ground or almost to the ground every year, so I cut it off like a spirea in the spring and wait for it to show up during my August despair to drag me along into cooler September.  I can't fault it entirely for not being "stem-hardy", though, since I grow a number of crapes and none of them grow unscathed through a winter.  Diminutive 'Cherry Dazzle' grows back every year and has the same nice bright red color, but only makes it a foot high by September.  Rose-red 'Tonto' and white 'Natchez' were specifically bred for Northern climates and will grow decently tall, 3, and 4 foot respectively, but they still die back to the ground each winter.  And none of these have the fall color of 'Centennial Spirit'.

'Centennial Spirit' is a product of the vision of Dr. Carl Whitcomb, an Oklahoma State University professor who established LaceBark Inc., a horticultural research company located near Stillwater, OK, in 1986. He has produced a number of new crape myrtles, including Dynamite, Pink Velour, Red Rocket, Raspberry Sunday, and 'Prairie Lace'.  If I could send Dr. Whitcomb a message, I'd ask him to please help out the poor neglected souls just a few hundred miles to the north by breeding hardy crape myrtle trees for Kansas. My only other hope is to pray for global warming to continue, and if this summer is any indication, it would be just my luck to have crape myrtles that are winter-hardy, but succumb to the summer heat.


  1. If it's any consolation, all crape myrtles are genetically shrubs. We force them to be trees by continually cutting off the suckers that grow at the bottom. So your crape myrtles are just doing what they are bred to do, be shrubs :-) Having said all that, it sure would be odd to see a Natchez at only 4 feet, when they easily grow to 30 down here. Pink Velour is one of my favorites. Just think of them as large perennials :-) With this heat we have to take what we can get!

  2. i actually took Dr. Whitcombs classes while an undergraduate. Professor Whit would radiate crape myrtle seeds to fine a true red which there were none back them. Notice the species names are Whit I, II, III, IV, etc. Prairies Lace's foliage is a favorite of mind. 90% of the large crapes froze back this year down here and Wichita. My son has a 25' Natchez in San Antonio that the previous owner de-horned. shame on him. I have two dwarfs, which I have forgotten the name of one. The other is Pokomo, and there is a pinkish-red variety that was here from before. Maybe pink velour.

  3. They are beautiful trees, even if a little too prone to mildew sometimes. I take them for granted here.

  4. 'Velma's Royal Delight' is one you might try, if you can find it. Apparently the original was found in a woman's yard here in Sedgwick County, so it should be reasonably winter hardy.

    I have to add one note of ... concern,though. "[I]mpervious to insect pests" means that crape myrtles do not actively participate in local food chains and thus are not supporting healthy ecosystems. A few are nice. Too many are a green growing version of Astroturf in shrub form.


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