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THE HALLMARK OF SUMMER

They're the rainbow treat of summer.

In cool splashes of watermelon red, pink, white and lavender, crape myrtles make the heat a little more bearable. For decades, they've been a hallmark of Florida summers; in fact, sometimes they're called the Southern lilac.

Many gardeners _ and municipalities, too _ get downright passionate about crape myrtles. Pinellas Park adopted it as the city's official plant 15 years ago; there's a crape myrtle garden at Freedom Lake Park and crape myrtles planted in medians all over the city. Every year, hundreds of trees are sold to homeowners during a crape myrtle sale, and Pinellas Park sponsors a contest to find the prettiest crape myrtle in town.

The crape myrtle is also the official flower of unincorporated Hillsborough County.

All over Tampa Bay, crape myrtles are showing their colors this month. They're at their peak in May, June and July. The flowering stems stand up above the foliage, studded with papery blossoms. Each is actually a cluster of tiny individual flowers.

Another attractive feature is the sculpturally twisted, multiple trunk with peeling bark that, in some varieties, can be removed to show a smooth silver finish.

Generally, the crape myrtle is a carefree plant, but the gardener must do a little grooming to keep it looking its best. Old, faded flower heads should be clipped off to encourage more blooms this season and next. If the flowers are allowed to set seed, flowering vigor is reduced the following summer. Flowering stops in October when days shorten.

Winter is the time to prune a crape myrtle. Suckers that form at the base of the trunk should be snipped off, as well as seed pods and any twigs along limbs. Some of the taller varieties of crape myrtle need to be pruned for height, as well. Pruning also encourages larger flower clusters the next summer.

Powdery mildew and aphids are about the only problems seen on crape myrtles. A tree planted in a sunny, airy location usually won't develop powdery mildew, a fungus that covers the trunk and limbs with a white coating. But if it does, you can spray the tree with a fungicide.

Aphids are a more common problem. Unfortunately, they usually strike in summer, when the tree is in its seasonal glory. You might be able to see the tiny yellowish-green bugs on the undersides of new leaves and shoots, enjoying a meal of tender foliage. What's more obvious is a black sooty mold that grows on the excreta left by the aphids. Repeated sprays of soap or horticultural oil should keep the pests under control.

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