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Crape myrtles offer colorful summers and elegant winter silhouettes

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By Judy Koehly
Master Gardener
Crape myrtles are in their glory during the hot, humid days of summer, but most people do not realize that they make a beautiful four-season statement. In summer, they bring us a splendid variety of colorful blooms, and in winter the smooth bark and graceful natural shape of the tree add a lovely contrast to the many other deciduous trees. To keep the blooms coming all summer, trim off the flower heads as soon as they finish their blooms and a new set of blooms will follow shortly.
Crape myrtles come in many sizes and it is most important to choose the size tree you want to plant in your yard before you check out the colors and varieties. If you stay within your size category, you will not be disappointed and not feel forced to commit “crape murder.” The satiny smooth bark and sinewy trunks of a graceful crape myrtle make an elegant statement in your winter garden, but if you amputate branches close to the trunk, you’ll end up with a knuckled, disfigured stump that mars the tree’s outline.
Crape myrtles do need pruning, but if done correctly, the pruning goes unnoticed. You are actually allowing the tree to grow naturally by taking away unnecessary branches. If your tree has a stub left from previous improper pruning, go ahead and get rid of the stub now. The best way to rid the tree of new sprouts that are growing in the wrong place (as in the bottom of the tree, or along the trunk line) is just rub them off with your thumb while they are still small. They are less likely to return when rubbed off rather than being cut off. When you are removing suckers from the base of the tree, cut along the soil level as low as possible. If a branch is growing toward the center of the tree rather than outward or if it is rubbing against another branch, cut it off as close to the trunk as possible without damaging the collar.
Dwarf types are less than 3 feet tall; semi-dwarf or medium are 6 to 12 feet tall; and others grow more than 12 feet tall. Flower colors include white, all shades of pink, red, and lavender to purple. Crape myrtles love the sun, well drained soil and good air circulation. To view a nice selection of crape myrtles, go to the Extension Center n the county complex on Old Ocean Highway. The botanical garden situated behind Building N is home to several crape myrtles, along with other plants that enjoy the hot and humid weather in southeastern North Carolina.
Once established, crape myrtles relish the hot sun and require only the water that nature sees fit to provide. For the first year or two, it is important to keep the plant well watered to help establish a strong root system. Crape myrtles can and should be a very low maintenance plant that adds to the beauty of your landscape throughout the seasons.
Send your gardening questions or comments to: Brunswick County Master Gardener Column, P.O. Box 109, Bolivia, NC 28422, or call 253-2610. Enclose a self-addressed stamped envelope if requesting information or a reply. Answers may be printed in this column.