Yes, it's crepe myrtle time! Called "June Roses" in Jamaica according to a dearly departed friend of mine, these beauties start blooming in May or June depending on the climate zone. They continue their colorful display well into autumn. I'm lucky to have several varieties growing in my back yard, all planted by my darling Hubby over the past twenty years.
scientific name is lagerstroemia crape myrtle. The traditional Southern
spelling is "Crepe Myrtle" (because the delicate flowers resemble
crepe paper). However, across the US, it is more commonly found as "Crape
Myrtle.” --According to Garden.com
I will go with the Southern version even though I had never heard of crepe myrtles before we moved to the Dallas-Fort Wort area decades ago. Apparently they aren't as well known by native-born yanks like me as is the iconic magnolia. It's a different story in North Texas. Here, they line boulevards, surround businesses and parking lots, and decorate private homes like mine.
Crepe Myrtles range in size from
weepers only 2-3 feet tall, to dwarf shrubs 3-6 feet tall, to majestic 20 to 30-foot
trees. Their flower clusters come in various shades of red, pink, purple and
lavender, as well as white - like this huge specimen towering over the nearby storage shed. Not to mention the back of our house!
Native to China and Korea, crepe
myrtles first came to America in the late 18th century, probably brought into
Virginia from England, where they refused to bloom because it wasn't hot
enough. They found southern temps more to their liking and spread across the
South along with settlers. Exactly when they arrived in Texas I could not
However, well-known North Texas
horticulturalist Neil Sperry says crepe myrtles were popular with Texas
gardeners in the 1920s and 30s. Texans were already breeding new varieties by
then. Sperry says the popular 'Watermelon Red' color was developed at Munson's
Nursery in Grayson County, near the border between Texas and Oklahoma. (Also where my dad grew up.)
Since then, the term 'Watermelon Red' has come to denote a number of old varieties with rose-to-hot-pink flowers. I have two dwarf bushes of this type.
Unfortunately, those early varieties
were and still are susceptible to powdery mildew.
In 1959, the late horticulturist John Creech of Rhode Island read about a unique species of crepe myrtle growing on the remote Japanese Island of Yakushima. Creech went there, collected seeds from one such tree, and brought them home. The seedlings grown from those seeds were distributed to arboretums and botanical gardens across the South and Southwest. Several of those trees still live at the Texas AgriLife and Extension Center in Dallas.
Late botanist Don Egolf of the U.S.
National Arboretum in Washington, D.C. succeeded in breeding the Japanese
variety with the older one. This helped to eliminate the powdery mildew problem.
The resulting “Indian tribe” hybrids were developed from the 1960s to the
1980s. They include such popular varieties as the white-flowered ‘Natchez’, the
light pink ‘Muskogee’ and the hot pink ‘Tuscarora’.
These trees were not only powdery mildew resistant, but also had exfoliating bark in tones of tan, orange and brown, traits derived from the original Japanese parent tree. This makes for showy trunks. However, these hybrids did not exhibit the same intense flower colors as the older ones. (The Tuscarora looks pretty intense to me.)
This issue prompted Dr. Carl Whitcomb, a retired Oklahoma State University professor, to try breeding crepe myrtles with strong-colored flowers and disease resistance – without any hybridization. In 1985, on 65 acres in Stillwater, Oklahoma, he began planting thousands of seedlings from one parent plant per year.
After four years of evaluation, he chose one to five plants out of the 16,000 seedlings that showed the best colors and least powdery mildew. Those were used for further breeding. After generations of this method, in 1996, Whitcomb released ‘Dynamite,’ the first true-red crepe myrtle. It’s not pinkish or purplish red, but fire-engine red. Three years later, he came out with ‘Red Rocket.’
These trees are now the most sought-after
crepe myrtles on the market. And I’m delighted to say I have one! It’s just
starting to bloom. Soon, I’ll see a big, bright red bouquet on the hill behind
my kitchen window.
Dr. Whitcomb has evaluated more than a half-million seedlings, yielding nine named varieties. He is now on his 18th generation of breeding and expects new colors in the future. “We’re just scratching the surface,” he says. “We’re starting to see more orange flowers, and we’re starting to see blue.”
Blue-flowered crepe myrtles? I actually
just saw a dwarf ‘True Blue’ advertised online. OMG, I want one! But they are out of
stock. Boo-hoo! Must contact the nursery and ask when they will be available.
Can’t be too soon for this crepe myrtle lover!
Lyn Horner is a multi-published, award-winning author of western historical romance and paranormal romantic suspense novels, all spiced with sensual romance. She is a former fashion illustrator and art instructor who resides in Fort Worth, Texas – “Where the West Begins” - with her husband and two very spoiled cats. As well as crafting passionate love stories, Lyn enjoys reading, gardening, genealogy, visiting with family and friends, and cuddling her furry, four-legged babies.
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