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Enjoying Crape Myrtle in Ohio landscapes

“Zuni” is one of very few tree form Crape Myrtles that will survive in Ohio.

The Ohio Valley is on the northern edge of hardiness for Crape Myrtle, but some Crape Myrtle varieties can be successful here if care is taken to protect them from the harsh winters we get occasionally.

Crape Myrtle is a woody shrub or small specimen tree that will behave like a perennial in northern climates, often dying back to the ground in winter only to reappear when the weather gets warm. Some varieties are hardier than others; it’s important to check the hardiness zone on the label before buying. We are in Zone 6a, but a harsh winter can bring root temperatures below zero and most Crape Myrtle varieties will not survive.

Crape Myrtles are often the last plants to re-emerge in spring. They can appear dead, and in fact may have lots of winter-kill, but eventually you’ll see fresh green shoots springing from the ground. These will grow rapidly in a single season and then flower on the new growth. Simply cut off the dead wood, fertilize and you’ll be rewarded with bloom by late summer.

Most Crape Myrtle varieties are hardy in Zone 7 or warmer, but southern Ohio is in Zone 6a. At our nursery we carry only Zone 6 or Zone 5 Crape Myrtle cultivars. These will withstand most Ohio valley winters if they have protection from winter wind, in locations where the ground doesn’t stay frozen for long periods. Typically this would be the East or Southeast side of your home, in a sunny spot (Crape Myrtles do best in full sun all day).

One of our strongest impressions from travels in the South is the abundance of showy Crape Myrtle shrubs and trees everywhere. Down South we see lots of Crape Myrtle trees over ten feet tall, most often multiple trunk clumps with the lower branches removed to show off the handsome bark and interesting branch structure of this distinctive tree. Up north it’s harder to get this effect, since the tree will often freeze back and have to re-grow from the ground up. We carry “Zuni”, a dark lavender variety that grows in a classic “clump form tree” with multiple trunks.

A better approach for Ohio is shrub-form Crape Myrtles. Most of these are on the large side, from six to 10 feet tall and wide, but dwarf forms are available. We carry “Dynamite,” a red variety that is fairly hardy in the Ohio valley. We also have “Enduring Summer”, a new “re-blooming” variety with bright red blooms.

“Pocomoke” is a more compact shrub form that fits well in foundation plantings. In late summer it makes a gorgeous display, reminiscent of azaleas, when most shrubs are looking a bit tired from the heat. The “Filli” series is a low-growing form hardy to Zone 5, a better bet for Ohio than most Crape Myrtles. We have “Red Filli” and “Violet Filli”.

Crape myrtles are a taste of the South, very interesting accent plants. We would be cautious about depending on them as the backbone of an Ohio landscape, but we’ve seen them thrive here in the right setting.

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2016 News Democrat