Saturday, May 26, 2018
Home and Garden

Fundraiser offers colorful crape myrtles for a song

Do the crape myrtles seem to be especially gung-ho this summer? Do you do double-takes when you pull into the bank or drive through your neighborhood and spot those vibrant pink, purple or creamy white crowns?

It's not just you.

"It's been a great year for crape myrtles," says Gary Knox, the University of Florida's crape myrtle specialist and a gushing fan of the "lilac of the South."

All the rain has flipped the "on" switch, says Gary, a Tallahassee resident and professor of environmental horticulture at UF's North Florida Research and Education Center in Quincy.

"Being a Yankee (from Pennsylvania) I was fascinated by crape myrtles when I first came down here," he says. "They're really an amazing plant — they can be grown in a hanging basket all the way to 50-foot-tall trees. They grow fast and they tolerate the heat and the humidity.

"I think lilacs should be known as the 'crape myrtles of the North.' "

Does this make you want one — or five? Me, too. They've been on my list for a long time, and I'm finally going to get a couple for cheap!

On Saturday, the Newspapers in Education division of the Tampa Bay Times plans its one-day-only crape myrtle fundraiser. For just $4, you can get one of several varieties of 1-gallon potted shrubs and trees. The proceeds will buy newspapers for students to use with the great curricula our NIE folks provide for teachers.

I'll be helping out at the sale from 9 to 10 a.m., and I'll bring some of my cooler cuttings and seeds for those of you interested in some side swapping. Come on out! I'd love to meet you (or see you again).

Crape myrtles (Lagerstroemia) captured my heart more than 20 years ago, when our family moved into our little northwest Hillsborough neighborhood. On the corner down the street, nine trees about 15 feet tall line a neighbor's yard. We pass them every morning as we head out to work, and every evening as we come home: such a beautiful way to start and end each day.

Frank Ferrera started planting them in 1980 for his wife, Shirley, who has since passed away.

"She loved crape myrtles — she was from Texas. And what she wanted was what she got," he says.

They didn't have much extra money back then, so he bought one or two each year.

"I'm a New Yorker who doesn't know the first thing about flowers," he says, but he does have an artist's eye. He and his landscaper very lightly prune the trees so that they all have a uniform shape and size.

The result is stunning. In winter, Frank's crapes drop their leaves to reveal gently curved and twisting pale gray limbs that remind me of dancers holding mildly eerie poses. They leaf out in spring and burst into bloom as the weather warms.

"People do come by and ask, 'Where did you get those?' " he says.

Frank chose his for their bloom colors — purple, white and red — but that has meant working hard to keep them all the same size. You'll be better off if you consider both the mature height, along with the other features you value, before you buy. Scope out where you plan to plant. A tree destined to grow to 30 feet won't be happy under the eaves. Crapes like sunshine, so you won't get those gorgeous summer blooms if you plant them under a canopy of oak trees.

Gary, the UF professor, created a great chart that lists the characteristics of 95 cultivars, including mature height, flower and bark color, resistance to powdery mildew fungus, and his own helpful comments, such as "Outstanding hybrid!" for Acoma, a white-flowering semi-dwarf that will be available at Saturday's sale. (Find his chart at

This is a good time of year for planting, he says. In fact, last month would have been even better. So get your new crape into the ground quickly to take advantage of our summer showers. The rain will ensure your shrub or tree develops a hearty root system that sustains it through dry months.

If you have sandy soil, don't worry about dumping a bunch of organic amendments like compost into the hole before you plant, he says. The roots grow quickly, so they'll be in unamended soil in no time. Instead, take care not to plant too deep; the top of the root ball should be 1 to 2 inches above the soil line, and cover the soil around your crape with about 3 inches of mulch to help hold the moisture in the root zone.

I promised Gary that I'd also include a plea to end "crape murder."

A lot of people believe that whacking crapes down to nubs in the winter promotes summer blooms. NOT! They'll bloom terrifically without pruning, and the poor, maimed, macheted plants develop big arthritic-looking knuckles that sprout whip-like canes. Ugly! Don't do it!

"If you want a tree, prune it early to two or three main trunks, and get rid of the suckers and the crossed branches, but otherwise, let it go," Gary says.

Less work for a prettier plant? I'm on board!

Reach Penny Carnathan at [email protected] Follow her blog at; join in the chat on Facebook at Diggin Florida Dirt or follow her on Twitter, @DigginPenny.