GARDENING

A small tree for urban homes


Published: Saturday, July 20, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, July 18, 2013 at 1:13 p.m.

Following the first heavy rainfall of the season in early July, there were numerous problems with large oaks toppling in the North Central Florida area. About this same time I was having a discussion with a couple of nurserymen about the underuse of crape myrtle standards as a small tree for urban yards. At the time, we were admiring a crape myrtle standard that had grown to a height of about 20 feet. It had a thick trunk, had been nicely shaped and provided desirable shade. One redeeming virtue of this tree is the fact that it doesn't become large enough to do significant damage in the unlikely event it were to topple in storm winds. Even if it did, there wouldn't be anything too heavy for the average homeowner to clean up.

In considering the suitability of crape myrtles as a small tree, perhaps the place to begin is with the term "standard." This might be defined as a crape myrtle that has been trained into one single, straight trunk. Branching begins about 5 feet above the ground, so the tree has one dominant trunk until the first branches emerge and all scaffold branches emanate from this trunk as opposed to the multi-trunked plants that are prevalent as small shrubs. The plant has been pruned at the nursery so that it has a defined tree-like canopy. Two cultivars in particular — Natchez, which is white, and Muscogee, which is purple — are excellent choices for standards.

There are several advantages to a crape myrtle that make it a desirable small tree. Although it is not a native tree, it is a tough plant that handles the inconsistencies of North Central Florida's climate, withstanding flooding and drought, summer heat and sudden swings in temperature during fall and spring. Although I have examined cold-damaged crape myrtles, these occurrences have been rare, and the plants exhibited death only in the upper portions of the canopy. Next, the plant tops out at about 20 to 25 feet in height, which is ideal for most urban lots. The thick canopy of a healthy crape myrtle provides good shade during the summer season, and although it loses leaves in late fall, these are small and raking shouldn't be necessary. Crape myrtles perform well in a variety of soils, and once established, the plant probably won't need fertilization.

No tree is perfect, and there are a few problems to be aware of in considering crape myrtle standards.

■ They are subject to aphid feeding, and large populations of this insect can cause decline, particularly if left untreated. Sooty mold is a black covering that grows on the leaves of the plants as a result of aphid feeding. If detected, treat for aphids using insecticidal soap or imidacloprid products, being careful to follow all label directions.

■ Crossing branches are common in crape myrtles, and light pruning will be required to keep the trees in form. Over time, carefully thinning the canopy will improve light penetration while enhancing branch structure. Sucker stalks will emerge from the base of the tree and will need to be trimmed away during the summer-growth season.

■ These trees do produce seeds, and the dry seed pods can be a drawback if the plant is located close to a patio area. Seed pods generally open in winter, and the protective shell can be a nuisance near driveways and sidewalks. Occasionally I notice small seedlings emerging in nearby plant beds, but these are minimal and easily weeded if caught early.

Crape myrtles are colorful, as an added bonus. The vibrant, long-lasting nature of the summer bloom is well-known, but during the fall season the leaves give some color, and the trunks also display an interesting pattern during the winter-dormancy season.

With only a few faults, the positive qualities of the crape myrtle standard make it an excellent small tree for urban lots. Unlike some of the large oaks, during the windy days of spring and the stormy days of summer, one need have no worries about crape myrtles falling on the house.

David Holmes is Marion County extension director. Contact him at david.holmes@marioncountyfl.org.

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