This week I would like to talk about one of my favorite summer flowering trees, Crape Myrtles, and how one man changed our landscapes forever. Crape Myrtles (Lagerstroemia indica) were introduced to the U.S. from China and Korea in the late 18th century. They were not very cold tolerant and cold winters would kill them to the ground or kill them out right. The species also suffered from powdery mildew which is a fungal disease that would damage both the leaves and flowers. In drier areas of the south Crape Myrtles were used as street trees and as summer flowering landscape plants but they were tough to use in the Mid-Atlantic due to their disease and hardiness issues. Then a wonderful thing happened, Dr. John Creech of the United States National Arboretum (USNA) brought back a new species of Crape Myrtle (Lagerstroemia fauriei) from Japan in the 1950’s and Dr. Don Egolf (also from the USNA) began to hybridize these two Crape Myrtle species in order to breed the cold-tolerance and disease resistance of L. fauriei with the flowers and landscape appeal of L. indica. During the ensuing thirty years until his untimely death Dr. Egolf worked tirelessly on this breeding program eventually introducing more than 20 cold hardy and disease resistant hybrid Crape Myrtles. All of these USNA introductions bear Native American names in a nod to Dr. Egolf’s home state of Oklahoma.
I want you now to think about all the fabulous Crape Myrtles that are planted in our landscapes and gardens, along our streets and in our parks. These are all the results of the work of one man. Without the efforts of Dr. Egolf and the USNA we would not have the great diversity of hardy and disease resistant Crape Myrtles we enjoy today. Few of us will ever leave such a lasting mark on the world.
After his passing many individuals and companies continued the work of Dr. Egolf and today we are blessed with a multitude of new types, sizes and colors of Crape Myrtles including ones with dark colored foliage and variegated flowers. These new introductions continue to broaden the appeal of this landscape plant. If you have a sunny location and are looking for a summer flowering deciduous tree or shrub (from 3’-40’) there is a Crape Myrtle for you. Thank Dr. Egolf when you plant one.