The flaming fuchsia and magnificent magenta flowers of crape myrtles set the summer landscape aflame with color in Virginia. These bright blooms come from some of the most notable trees known to Southerners, but the trees' bark is just as memorable. The way the trees shed their bark is a rarity in the plant world, according to local nursery owners. The bark of many crape myrtles exfoliates, sloughing off in wispy, off-white shards, leaving dappled tree trunks of beige and gray.
However, the Cadillac of bark belongs to a series of crape myrtles named after Native Americans. "Some breeding went on 20 years ago, and what was developed was bark that is a cinnamon color that's beautiful," says horticulturist Butch Gaddy of Colesville Nursery in Ashland.
Among the trees in that series, the Natchez crape myrtle is considered to be the "standard by which other crape myrtles are judged," says master gardener Claudia C. Swanson. The tree is known to bloom for 110 days.
Gaddy notes that crape myrtles are the only Richmond-area trees that flower during the summer, starting in June and ending in September. The flowers range from white to lipstick red. Warmer, rustic hues of changing fall leaves replace summer's brilliant tones.
The plants have hearty life cycles, but Swanson points out that Richmond is on the northern cusp of the proper growing zone for crape myrtles. Because of this, some crape myrtles will succumb to particularly intense winters.
Although crape myrtle blooms throughout various regions of the United States, it has a dominant presence in Richmond – and the swath of soil from Oklahoma to Georgia known as Zone 7.
Crape myrtles come in myriad colors, shapes, styles – and sizes. Dwarf crape myrtles only reach 2 to 3 feet in height. The tallest crape myrtle trees top out at 25 feet.
Overzealous pruning is the No. 1 cause for "crape myr-der," says master gardener Claudia C. Swanson. Carefully prune trees in the natural shape of the tree or simply leave them alone.