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Northern California

BY JEFF COX/ Kenwood, California, USDA Zone 9

Crape Myrtle

Before I moved to Sonoma County from the East Coast in mid-August, 1985, I’d only spent a few days visiting this part of the country. So, I really didn’t know what to expect, horticulturally speaking. Back East, my knowledge of plant life had been comfortable. I knew hundreds of common and botanical names of forest trees, native shrubs, wild and cultivated woody and herbaceous plants, annuals, and meadow plants. They were old friends of long standing. But now, as I looked around my new territory, I had no idea what most of the plants were. It was as if I went to sleep and woke up on a different planet.

I certainly didn’t expect the sight that immediately greeted me. Everywhere, well-shaped trees were exploding with thick clusters of flowers in all different colors: orchid, lilac, lavender, brilliant red, watermelon pink, shell pink, mauve, and white. They lined the streets of Santa Rosa.

They grew in private yards, on campuses, in parks. They were strikingly beautiful— and I had no idea what they were.

I soon found out the colorful trees were crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia indca), a native of China. Here was a new plant acquaintance I really enjoyed making. Their flowers each have six petals of crepe paper appearance and, depending on the cultivar, open either in large clusters that cover the tree or cone-shaped panicles that arch attractively. They appear at the tips of the new season’s growth, so cutting branches back by 12 to 18 inches during the dormant season stimulates bloom.

Crape myrtle bark is showy, too. Gray to tan patches exfoliate to reveal smooth, pale pink to gray bark. And in fall the leaves turn bright yellow, rich burgundy, glowing orange, or deep red—sometimes all on the same tree. Leaf drop reveals a handsome, vase-shaped branch structure.

Crape myrtles thrive in USDA Zones 8 and 9, where they form either multitrunked shrubs or 25- to 30-foot trees, depending on the cultivar and how it’s pruned. In Zone 7, winter frosts trim them back to their woody roots, and their tops are herbaceous perennials, much like Buddleia. In areas colder than that, they freeze out.

When young, crape myrtles need moderate moisture during California’s summer drought, but once established, they carry on with little supplemental water. Close to the coast, where the air is foggy and moist, powdery mildew plagues them, but crosses between L. indica and L. fauriei are strongly mildew resistant. These hybrids are named for Native American tribes; examples include ‘Catawba’ purple, ‘Cherokee’ bright red, and ‘Pecos’ pink. They’re usually grown as large, multitrunked shrubs 10 to 20 feet tall. Just 10 to 20 miles inland, the air dries out and crape myrtle live mildew free, enjoying the summer heat and full sun.

Crape myrtle was just the first of hundreds of new plants I would soon come to know: New Zealand tea trees, grevilleas, all the eucalyptus varieties, the evergreen and deciduous native and imported oaks, fatsias, phormiums, pittosporums, tibouchinas, cape plumbagos, and the wildflowers. Oh, the wildflowers! Native annual wildflowers turn the hills to tapestries, April to June! Now I understood where Walt Disney got his color schemes.

It was a new world, and I was a new me. H

WORTH GROWING

Lapageria rosea

The misty climate along California’s coast may give crape myrtles mildew, but it’s just what the drop-dead-gorgeous Chilean bellflower (Lapageria rosea) calls for. This vine’s stems grow 10 to 20 feet long. They are sprinkled with waxy, pendant, three-inch rosy red bells from late spring to fall. Sources, page 72.

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