The plant that people ask me about the most is one that I used to take for granted. “What is that red shrub?” or “Is that really a Crape Myrtle? I thought it was too cold here for them?” are words I’ve had uttered to me several times. Yes, that red shrub is a red flowering Lagerstroemia indica, or Crape Myrtle, and no, it is not too cold here to grow it.
L. indica are EVERYWHERE in the southern U.S., and are considered one of the great flowering small trees in those parts. I really stopped even noticing them after awhile. But when I moved back up to New York City, I started seeing them pop up from time to time, and started to really appreciate the virtues of this small tree. Crape myrtles are often multi-stemmed deciduous trees that hail from China, Korea and Japan. They have a wide spreading, open and actually quite flat-ish top when mature. The bark can be quite striking and interesting on its own, with a smooth texture and a peeling habit that often reveals a pinkish to cinnamon color beneath. The related species, Lagerstroemia fauriei takes this habit to a rich and satisfying extreme. Check it out here.
The flowers of these stately specimens are borne on panicles in mid-summer, and have a ruffled, papery appearance. They rather resemble small bits of crepe paper to be honest. Hmmm. Could that be where part of the common name comes from? The color bred was usually white, pink, mauve, purple or carmine, but in the late 90s a true red cultivar was finally bred, and given the name ‘Dynamite.’ This color was an exciting addition to the usually brick-red/purple forms of earlier days, and still is.
Lagerstroemia indica is listed as a USDA Hardiness zone 7, but I would feel comfortable enough to try it in a zone 6 climate. Be aware that it can be grown in even colder climes, but that it could be killed to the ground and have to re-sprout from the base. They prefer full sun, and will not flower as well in shaded conditions. ‘Dynamite’ is not the only cultivar out there by the way, and you can find many others to suit your color preferences. We have a nice pink variety at the entrance to 23rd street at Madison, though its cultivar name is unknown to me. There are also several fine dwarf varieties, allowing it to fit in several different garden situations, so plop one in sometime and start living.