Originally created 07/10/98

The city's myrtles



A glance around the parched landscape reveals a reason why crape myrtle trees are considered the "city tree" of Augusta.

The bright pink, lavender and white blossoms of these showy trees survive the heat and lack of water with the vigor of a distance runner.Crape myrtles (Lagerstroemia indica) are "one of the toughest plants there can be," said Jim Blount, grounds manager for the Augusta Housing Authority.

Identified first in India, but originating in China, these drought-hardy trees got their scientific name from a Swedish merchant, Magnus Von Lagerstroem. Also known as Indian lilac, the more familiar name crape myrtle comes from their light, crepelike blooms.

The Southern Living Garden Book lists 24 types of crape myrtle. Barry Smith, director of the city's Trees and Parks, said varieties such as "Regal Red,""William Toovey" (pinkish-red) and "Natchez" (pure white) are common in the area. Mr. Smith oversees the landscapes of the many boulevards and parks around the city.Under current conditions, Mr. Smith said young crape myrtles are surviving better than other newly established trees, such as oaks. Some older crape myrtles are dropping blooms early because of the heat.

But the summer mortality rate for crape myrtle trees and shrubs shouldn't be too bad, said Mr. Blount. Survival depends on earlier stress and the year's overall weather.

Crape myrtles are popular in the South mainly because of their long bloom life, drought tolerance and attractive bark. However, it is important to plant powdery-mildew and city-mold-resistant strains, Mr. Smith said.

Many types can carry blooms anywhere from 70 to 110 days. In comparison, magnolia trees bloom for about 30 days and dogwood trees for just 21 days.Three forms of crape myrtles may be trained as trees or shrubs. The multi-trunk form gives a "clump" effect and makes an attractive border. Single-trunk specimens, the standard form, are more formal-looking and often used to create an avenue of trees. Crape "myrtlettes," or dwarf trees, resemble bushes or shrubs.

All species bloom on new wood and should be pruned during December-February to increase next summer's flowers.

"You can actually cut a crape myrtle down to the ground," said Mr. Smith, and it will grow back. Continuous pruning can also make a solid hedge.

However, improper pruning can create ugly shrubs or clumpy trees, Mr. Smith said.