Crape Myrtle History

History

Crape myrtles flower in Chestnut Square in the historic district of downtown McKinney.

No flowering shrub and small tree so typifies the South as crape myrtles. Native to Southeast Asia, crape myrtles were introduced to the United States more than 200 years ago. Records from Mount Vernon indicate that the ship George Barclaythat arrived in Philadelphia in 1799 brought seeds of crape myrtles to the George Washington plantation. Many 100-year-old and older specimens still dot historic landscapes and abandoned properties from the Atlantic Ocean to Texas.

Crape myrtles are in the genus Lagerstroemia in the loosestrife family. Two species make up most of our cultivated flowering types, but there are more than 50 species in all. Several are tropical timber trees.

Lagerstroemia indica was the common crape myrtle species from which all varieties originated prior to 1960. Its name would suggest that it was native to India, but actually its home is China. Most L. indica varieties prior to 1960 were large shrubs and were grown pretty much unpruned. Faced with shrinking urban lots, however, inventive landscape architects found that lower branches could be removed and the plants converted into small patio and entryway trees and that use became commonplace from the late 1950s on.

 

 

 

 

 

Dr. Donald Egolf (left) of the United States National Arboretum and TAMU Research Horticulturist Benny Simpson evaluate seedlings from the Arboretum’s watershed crape myrtle breeding program at the Dallas TAMU Center in 1975.

A second species, L. fauriei, native to a portion of Japan, was introduced to the United States from seed collected in 1956. That species’ highly marked trunk and resistance to powdery mildew, long the problem of the L. indica varieties, made it a natural for the breeding work conducted by the United States National Arboretum under the leadership of Dr. Donald Egolf. More than 25 varieties with L. faurieigenes have been introduced by the arboretum to-date, all bearing the names of Native American Indian tribes. They are some of our most popular and most widely planted varieties.

As we have seen many tall and intermediate varieties brought into the marketplace, we also have an increasing number of dwarf types as well. With the huge range of mature heights it’s safe to say that from the 120 known varieties there is a crape myrtle for every possible landscaping need.

It’s our hope that this Website and the sites to which it links will provide you with a rich appreciation of this wonderful group of flowering plants. We hope it’s useful as you strive to succeed with your own plantings, and we hope that you will visit our city to see thousands of crape myrtles in their full glory.

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