KC Gardens

Colorful crape myrtles are moving north as hardier varieties take root

‘Velma’s Royal Delight’ crape myrtle, introduced by Kansas State University, grows well in Kansas City gardens.
‘Velma’s Royal Delight’ crape myrtle, introduced by Kansas State University, grows well in Kansas City gardens.

Crape myrtle has long been a staple of Southern landscapes that has worked its way north over the years. Though it was originally classified as a Zone 7 plant, breeders have worked to extend its range with more cold-hardy varieties, making it right at home in Kansas City.

These hardy cultivars often die back to the ground over winter. Don’t worry, the root system is tough enough to survive. That means that even though all the top growth dies, the plant regenerates from the base. Plants in warmer micro-climates may survive the cold, which allows the interesting bark to develop.

Mature branches of crape myrtles will develop an exfoliating bark that reveals a white to tan showy under-bark. If the plant can avoid winter die-back it can be transformed into a small landscape tree. But in our climate consider the beauty of the bark a bonus and grow the plant for its colorful summer flowers.

The great thing about crape myrtles is their ability to put on a show under the harshest of conditions. Crape myrtles do best in full sun and require little supplemental watering once established. They require little fertilization. Pruning is a breeze. Wait until they leaf out and then cut back to live wood.

One note of caution; they are heat-loving plants, so they are one of the last to leaf out in late spring. Don’t give up. The dormant wood looks dead when in fact it could be alive.

Crape myrtles come in a range of colors but are mostly white and numerous shades of pink, purple, lilac and slightly red. Many varieties have nice fall color. When it comes to variety selection, they are numerous. Look for ones recommended for northern climates in your desired color. A few varieties that have been growing successfully in our Extension Master Gardener Demonstration Garden include:

▪ ‘Velma’s Royal Delight’ tops the list — a Kansas State University introduction. Velma has deep purple or magenta flowers. It tends to be about 3 to 6 feet tall, with equal spread.

▪ ‘Acoma’ reaches about 3 feet and may be 4 to 5 feet wide with a spreading to weeping habit. Awash with pure white flowers all summer long, it is a real showstopper.

▪ ‘Victor’ is a more upright grower, about 3 feet tall. It has bright, deep red flowers. The foliage is a darker purple leaf, which creates interest.

▪ ‘Centennial Spirit’ is described as neon red by some. It is also a showstopper when in summer flower.

▪ ‘Tonto’ is an old favorite with red flowers and is reported to be very winter hardy. It is a larger grower and more upright in habit.

These are just a few of the many selections that can be grown in the Kansas City landscapes that will stand up to our weather patterns. So if you have not introduced crape myrtles to your garden, now is the time, as they will be a bright spot in an otherwise hot, dry summer.

Dennis Patton is a horticulture agent with Kansas State University Research and Extension. Got a question for him or other university extension experts? Email them to garden.help@jocogov.org or visit KCGardens