“Deservedly one of the most popular shrubs in America. In the South it takes the place of the lilac of the North, but is far more beautiful ...”
Gilbert Onderdonk’s 1898–99 Mission Valley Nurseries catalog, Nursery, Texas
Every self-respecting gardener knows that you grow lilacs in the North and crape myrtles in the South. Even New York’s Liberty Hyde Bailey knew this. In his 1917 “Standard Cyclopedia of Horticulture” he stated that “The crape myrtle, Lagerstroemia indica, is to the South what the lilac and the snowball are to the North — an inhabitant of nearly every home yard.”
The crape myrtle received its common name for its superficial resemblance (although no relation) to the true myrtle (Myrtus) and for its crape-like flowers. The Latin name of the genus, Lagerstroemia, was given to the tree in 1759 by the Swedish botanist Linnaeus, in honor of his friend Magnus von Lagerstroem (1696–1759), director of the Swedish East Indies Co. and an avid naturalist.
There are about 55 species of Lagerstroemia, all native to Asia and the Pacific Islands. Of all of these, only three are cold hardy through most of the South — L. indica, L. fauriei and L. subcostata, with L. indica, from China, the only one common in Southern gardens. It is likely the most popular small flowering tree in the entire South. It has been cultivated in its native Southeast Asia for thousands of years.
Our crape myrtle was supposedly introduced to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, England, in 1759. Its exact date of introduction into the United States is unknown. Credit is often given to Andre Michaux, who established a nursery around Charleston, South Carolina, about 1786. Apparently George Washington was one of the first to attempt to grow crape myrtles. Records at Mount Vernon show that a ship arrived in Philadelphia in April 1799 carrying two plants and seed of L. regime, as well as seeds of L. indica.
Bernard M’Mahon mentioned L. indica in The American Gardener’s Calendar in 1806. Crape myrtle was listed among the plants cultivated in 1811 at the famous Elgin Botanic Garden in New York. It wasn’t long before it began to spread across the South. Records at Prince Nursery in New York show that they were offering the crape myrtle for sale in 1827. Thomas Affleck mentioned the crape myrtle in a letter to the editor of the Natchez Daily Courier in 1854 but didn’t have it listed in his 1851-52 Southern Nurseries catalog in Washington, Mississippi. Montgomery Nurseries, of Montgomery, Alabama, offered the crape myrtle in its 1860 catalog. Langdon’s Nurseries, near Mobile, offered four varieties (pink, purple, crimson and white) in its 1881–82 catalog. In Texas, T.V. Munson’s Denison Nurseries listed pink, crimson and purple crape myrtle in 1885, while in Frelsburg J. F. Leyendecker’s Pearfield Nursery catalog of 1888 said it was “too well known to require description.”
Almost every abandoned homesite in the South is marked by at least one surviving crape myrtle. It always fascinated me as a child to see the crape myrtles and Narcissus growing by themselves in the middle of pastures. This toughness and survivability lead to their use as a frequent cemetery ornamental and a common urban street tree.
Greg Grant is the Smith County horticulturist for the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. He is author of Texas Fruit and Vegetable Gardening and co-author of Heirloom Gardening in the South and The Rose Rustlers. You can read his “Greg’s Ramblings” blog at arborgate.com, his “In Greg’s Garden” in each issue of Texas Gardener magazine (texasgardener.com), or follow him on Facebook at “Greg Grant Gardens.” More research-based gardening information from the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service can be found at aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu and plantan swers.com.