Queen of the Crape Myrtles

Catawba crape myrtles in foreground, taller Muskogees behind. This is on Eldorado Parkway about 1 mile east of US75 just east of Malvern Elementary. There are several beds of Catawbas along that stretch of Eldorado. Click image for larger view.

This is proving to be a great year for crape myrtles. At least that’s true in North Central Texas, specifically in McKinney, home of The Crape Myrtle Trails of McKinney and identified by the U.S. Congress as America’s Crape Myrtle City in 2014.

Compact and full habit of Catawba crape myrtle makes it useful for both residential and commercial landscapes.

Since 1999 our Crape Myrtle Trails Foundation along with the city of McKinney and the McKinney Independent School District have all been involved with the planting of upwards of 50,000 crape myrtles in our city.

The comparison of plant size and flower color between Catawba in the foreground and Muskogee behind it is noteworthy.

I’ve spent a lot of time observing those crape myrtles, and I’ve come to many conclusions. I’ll cover other topics at other times. For now I’m going to leave it at my favorite color and my favorite variety.

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Purple crape myrtles combine best with all other colors, whether we’re talking about other crape myrtles or with bricks, stone or painted trim. Purple crape myrtles simply fit in very well.

Catawba crape myrtle after just two years shows how quickly it can be developed from its natural shrub form into a small accenting tree.

By comparison, red crape myrtles don’t always play well with others, and there can be a fine line between pinks and lavenders – enough so that they can look restless when grown together. But the purples always seem to get along.

Catawba graces a Stonebridge Ranch landscape in West McKinney.

And my favorite purple is the variety Catawba. It’s certainly not new. It was introduced by Dr. Don Egolf from the United States National Arboretum in 1967. He went on to introduce almost 30 more varieties of mildew-resistant crape myrtles, all carrying Indian tribal names like Natchez, Muskogee and Tuscarora, among many others.

For decades, this book was the go-to reference for checking lineages of popular crape myrtle varieties. Now out-of-print, copies are sometimes seen on reseller websites.
This is the entry in The Lagerstroemia Handbook/Checklist for the variety Catawba. You can track its description and development. Click on image for larger view.

Catawba is mannerly. It grows to 15 to 18 feet tall and wide, so it’s perfect for almost any size of lot. It has a full and rounded habit of growth.

Catawba blooms 3 or 4 times every summer as long as it isn’t topped. Its fall color is often very nice, and its trunks are a handsome gray shade.

Fall color of Catawba in the Sperry landscape.
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Your local independent retail garden center will be familiar with the crape myrtle variety Catawba. They’ll either have it or they can get it for you. It’s generally available in several different sizes, but if all you can find is a relatively small plant, go ahead and buy it. They grow fairly quickly.

As with all crape myrtles, space it out from the house by at least 12 or 15 feet. Grow it in well draining soil that you can keep moist at all times and apply a high-nitrogen fertilizer to keep it growing actively. Full sun is a requirement.

Posted by Neil Sperry
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