One of our strongest impressions from travels in the South is the abundance of showy Crape Myrtle shrubs and trees everywhere. Colorful Crape Myrtle trees line the streets, and shrub form Crape Myrtles liven up many home landscapes. Crape Myrtle is a woody shrub or small specimen tree that will behave like a perennial in northern climates, often dying back to the ground in winter only to reappear when the weather gets warm. The Ohio valley is on the northern edge of hardiness for Crape Myrtle, but some Crape Myrtle varieties can be successful here if care is taken to protect them from the harsh winters we get occasionally.
Crape Myrtles are often the last plants to re-emerge in spring. They can appear dead, and in fact may have lots of winter-kill, but eventually you’ll see fresh green shoots springing from the ground. These will grow rapidly in a single season and then flower on the new growth. Simply cut off the dead wood, fertilize and you’ll be rewarded with bloom by late summer.
Some varieties are hardier than others; it’s important to check the hardiness zone on the label before buying. Most Crape Myrtle varieties are hardy in Zone 7 or warmer, but southern Ohio is in Zone 6a. A harsh winter can bring root temperatures below zero and most Crape Myrtle varieties will not survive.
Reputable nurseries in southern Ohio carry only Zone 6 or lower Crape Myrtle cultivars. These will withstand most Ohio valley winters if they have protection from winter wind, in locations where the ground doesn’t stay frozen for long periods. Typically this would be the East or Southeast side of your home, in a sunny spot (Crape Myrtles do best in full sun all day).
Down South we see lots of Crape Myrtle trees over ten feet tall, most often multiple trunk clumps with the lower branches removed to show off the handsome bark and interesting branch structure of this distinctive tree. Up north it’s harder to get this effect, since the tree will often freeze back and have to re-grow from the ground up. “Dynamite” is a fire-engine red variety that is fairly hardy in the Ohio valley. “Sarah’s Favorite”, a white tree-form variety, is also hardy in zone 6a. “Zuni”, a dark lavender variety that grows in a classic “clump form tree” with multiple trunks, is another possibility for this area. Still, tree form Crape Myrtles are a rarity in southern Ohio.
A better approach for Ohio is shrub-form Crape Myrtles. Most of these are on the large side, from 6 to 10 feet tall and wide, but dwarf forms are available. “Enduring Summer” is a new “re-blooming” variety with bright red blooms. The “Dazzle” series of Crape Myrtle is available in many colors and it’s zone 6a hardy. “Tonto” has proven itself in this area; there are several large example at the Cincinnati Zoo Botanical Gardens.
“Pocomoke” is a more compact shrub form that fits well in foundation plantings. In late summer it makes a gorgeous display, reminiscent of azaleas, when most shrubs are looking a bit tired from the heat. The “Filli” series is a compact form hardy to Zone 5, a better bet for Ohio than most Crape Myrtles, and available in several colors.
Crape myrtles are a taste of the South, very interesting accent plants. We would be cautious about depending on them as the backbone of an Ohio landscape, but we’ve seen them thrive here in the right setting.
Steve Boehme is a landscape designer/installer specializing in landscape “makeovers.” “Let’s Grow” is published weekly; column archives are on the “Garden Advice” page at www.goodseedfarm.com. For more information is available at www.goodseedfarm.com or call GoodSeed Farm Landscapes at (937) 587-7021.