Tree of the Moment: Crepe myrtle

A few years ago when I was asking about the tree with the lovely flowers, I heard ‘Cape Myrtle’ and figured this must be a tree native to somewhere like South Africa or India as the name sounded like a good colonial one.

I wasn’t too far wrong – even though the common name of the Lagerstroemia family is Crepe Myrtle (because of the crinkled, crepe-like look to the flowers). There are around 50 species in the family, some deciduous, and they are native to the Indian subcontinent and southeast Asia, plus there’s one native to northern Australia (Lagerstroemia archeriana, also found in parts of New Guinea).


Spotted next to an office in Te Puke was a tree covered in flowers. I took it to be Lagerstroemia fauriei (or a hybrid of it), native to Japan, and the palest in flower colour. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The botanical name comes from Magnus von Lagerström (1696-1759), director of the Swedish East India Company (although he never went to Asia), who supplied plants to his friend Carl Linnaeus (1707-78), known as the father of modern taxonomy.

The trees shed bark year-round, which creates an attractive mottling effect, their leaves change colour in autumn and they flower profusely in summer and autumn – and by ‘profusely’ I mean you can’t see the tree for the flowers! But they have to have full sun to perform at their best. Trees vary in height from dwarf to 10m so select carefully, although if need be, they can be hard pruned each year to keep to size as they flower on new wood.

The peeling bark of Lagerstroemia indica Muskogee in the Central Garden at the Getty Centre, Los Angeles. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Burke’s Backyard says that the ‘Indian Summer’ range of Lagerstroemia has been specially bred to resist powdery mildew, a fungal disease that’s hard to control with spray. Read more here. (Unfortunately, it doesn’t look as though these trees are available in New Zealand.)

The US National Arboretum website has a great guide to growing Crepe Myrtles in a Q&A format. See it here. The trees are particularly popular in California, Texas and the ‘Deep South’.

The vibrant flowers of Lagerstroemia indica. As its name suggests, this tree is native to the Indian subcontinent (as well as China and Japan). Photo: Sandra Simpson


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