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They call them “Southern Lilacs”

by Sara Henderson
We’ve reached the hottest part of the summer and the crapemyrtles (Lagerstroemia indica) are in full bloom throughout Oakland’s grounds. Southerners know them immediately but many of our visitors are amazed and want to know what they are. The question that follows is inevitably “Will they grow in….” and they are very disappointed when they learn that these are southern plants. Plant lust seems to be a universal condition that is as real today as it was for the Victorians.
Crapemyrtles have been in gardens for hundreds of years, especially in India, and Carl Linnaeus initially named them Lagerstroemia in 1759 to honor Magnus von Lagerstroem, a Swedish naturalist and director of the Swedish East Indies Company. The common name, crapemyrtle, refers to the crinkled, crepe-like texture of the flowers, leading many to refer to them as crepe myrtles.
According to Liberty Hyde Bailey in his ‘Cyclopedia of American Horticulture (fourth edition, 1905) “The Crape Myrtle is to the South what the lilac and snowball are to the North – an inhabitant of nearly every home yard.” He goes on to describe the smooth, polished bark, ease of culture and many common forms, including those with pink, blush, white and purple flowers.
These lovely plants have graced gardens here in the South since the French botanist André Michaux introduced this tree into Charleston around 1786. It didn’t take long for word of this beautiful tree to spread. Records from Mount Vernon indicate that the ship the George Barclay arrived in Philadelphia in 1799 bringing seeds of crapemyrtles to Mount Vernon. Closer to home, Fruitland Nurseries in Augusta was shipping named varieties selected for color to their customers by the 1850’s.
Our love affair with this glorious plant continued, however its susceptibility to powdery mildew and other diseases limited its popularity. Efforts by the National Arboretum in the 1960s to breed improved forms led to the 1978 introduction of ‘Natchez’ and ‘Muscogee’. Additional cultivars with improved heath, form and color continue to be released by the National Arboretum and other breeders, making crapemyrtles a leading landscape choice once again.  Plants can be found with mature sizes ranging from less than 3’ to over 20’, flowers in shades of pink, white, lavender and red, and foliage that is green or deep burgundy before ending the season with glowing fall colors. Our northern visitors may benefit from this breeding as well, since cold hardy varieties are being developed.
The crapemyrtles at Oakland reflect both the historic seedling plants and the new, improved varieties. It is our goal to demonstrate that what’s old is not only new, but relevant. Modern homes tend to be on smaller lots and homeowners have less time to tend their gardens, so the crapemyrtle’s easy culture, year-round beauty and range of sizes makes it a perfect choice. This historic plant continues to deserve its place in our southern gardens.

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