Wednesday Weed – Crape Myrtle

Crape Myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica)

Dear Readers, the Crape (or Crepe or Crêpe) Myrtle is originally from India, China and other areas of eastern Asia, though I think of it as being a tree that is synonymous with the southern states of the USA. I was in Washington DC a few years ago, and between the singing of the cicadas and the flowers on the Crape Myrtles it felt very sultry. All I needed was a mint julep and I’d have been in my element.

In China, the tree is known as Pai Jih Hung, which apparently means ‘100 days of red’, after the plant’s long flowering time and red flowers (the pink, mauve and white varieties are cultivars). It was also known as the ‘monkey tree’ because the bark is smooth and difficult to climb. So I suppose it should be called the ‘no monkey tree’. Or possibly the ‘monkey puzzle tree’, except that we already have one of those.

But what is this tree doing in East Finchley, parked at the end of Huntingdon Road in the County Roads and blooming away to its heart’s content? A while back I mentioned that the council was getting much more ambitious with its street trees, and Crape Myrtle was one of the trees mentioned. It really is spectacular, and most unexpected. In his book ‘London’s Street Trees’, Paul Wood mentions that in previous years the tree was considered only half-hardy in London’s winters, but as climate change kicks in, it seems to be thriving. Crape Myrtle doesn’t flower every year, so when it does it’s a real treat.

The fact that the tree doesn’t flower annually has led to some brutal pruning practices (actually known as ‘crape murder’) particularly in the US. All the outer branches are cut off in the autumn, leaving just a stump. In fact, the tree will flower whenever conditions are right and it has the resources to do so, and pruning that hard leads to soft growth, which can attract aphids and mildew, and suckering from the bottom. Be kind to your Crape Myrtle, people! It will flower when it feels like it!

Crape Myrtle is a member of the Lythraceae family, which also includes purple loosestrife of all things. Who knew? I guess they’re both pink (though bear in mind that Crape Myrtle comes in a variety of colours, including bright red.

As far as pollinators go, Crape Myrtle doesn’t have a lot of nectar but it is said to have two types of pollen – the usual stuff, which is full of protein, and ‘false’ pollen, which is generated specifically to attract pollinators. As it blooms in September/October in the UK, it could potentially be a good source of late pollen for any bees who are still active. I shall keep an eye on the one on our street to see if anyone is popping in for a bite.

What I’ve found interesting from reading some of the legends about Crape Myrtle is how, all of a sudden, it’s associated with Aphrodite. What? This is a plant originating in eastern Asia and then heading to the US without so much as a stopover in Europe. What’s happened (I think) is that people are getting confused with a European plant that is interwoven with myth called Myrtle. This is a completely different plant, associated with love and marriage and all those other pleasant things. It is not, however, a Crape Myrtle, so enough already. This is where (Pedant alert) those so-called  boring, elitist Latin names come in so handy when we are trying to identify something precisely.

Common Myrtle (Myrtus communis) Photo By LIGURIAN VASCULAR FLORA –, CC BY 2.0,

Back to Crape Myrtle. This really is an excellent tree for a small garden if you want something that has more than one season of interest (though for wildlife value I think there are better choices) – the bark of the tree is apparently very smooth (as mentioned above), and I must go and inspect the East Finchley tree to see what it looks like. The author of the photo below says that you have to actually stroke the tree to appreciate the smoothness (from the Wild in Japan blog, which is a very good read). In the photo below it looks rather like a more-refined London Plane, which is anything but smooth, as we know.

Crape myrtle bark – ‘as smooth as a baby’s bottom’ (Photo from

And then there’s the autumn foliage colour, something else for me to look out for later in the year.

Crape Myrtle leaves in autumn (Photo Famartin, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons)

Medicinally, Crape Myrtle is one of those trees that is literally meant to cure everything from diabetes to cancer. stroke to heart attack. A more reasonable assessment is given over on the Plants for a Future website, where it seems to be more use as a ‘drastic purgative’ (yikes!), as a paste for the treatment of wounds, and as a treatment for colds (if you use a decoction of the flowers). As usual, Bug Woman advises extreme caution.

And finally, here’s a poem by Evie Shockley, a black woman who grew in in the Deep South of the US. Here’s what she says about being ‘a southern poet’ –

I grew up: hearing certain accents and vocabularies and speech patterns that were the aural essence of ‘home’ or the audible signal of danger, depending; thinking that racism wasn’t much of a problem in other parts of the country; eating a cuisine that was originally developed under conditions of make-do and make-last; enjoying five- or six-month summers and getting ‘snow days’ out of school when the forecast called for nothing other than ‘possible icy conditions’; knowing that my region was considered laughable almost everywhere else; assuming there was nothing unusual about finding churches on two out of every four corners; and believing that any six or seven people with vocal chords could produce four-part harmony at the drop of a dime—and that all of this informs my poetry, sometimes directly and sometimes in ways that might be unpredictable or illegible.”

I love this, and I love this poem. See what you think.

where you are planted

he’s as high as a georgia pine, my father’d say, half laughing. southern trees
as measure, metaphor. highways lined with kudzu-covered southern trees.
fuchsia, lavender, white, light pink, purple : crape myrtle bouquets burst
open on sturdy branches of skin-smooth bark : my favorite southern trees.
one hundred degrees in the shade : we settle into still pools of humidity, moss-
dark, beneath live oaks. southern heat makes us grateful for southern trees.
the maples in our front yard flew in spring on helicopter wings. in fall, we
splashed in colored leaves, but never sought sap from these southern trees.
frankly, my dear, that’s a magnolia, i tell her, fingering the deep green, nearly
plastic leaves, amazed how little a northern girl knows about southern trees.
i’ve never forgotten the charred bitter fruit of holiday’s poplars, nor will i :
it’s part of what makes me evie :  i grew up in the shadow of southern trees.

2 thoughts on “Wednesday Weed – Crape Myrtle

  1. Ann Bronkhorst

    She is a poet new to me and a find: thank you. She writes so well in both prose and poetry. What a rush of allusions at the end of the poem!


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