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Native Substitutes for a Crape Myrtle Tree

Three to try!

native white fringe tree female in bloom
Native White Fringe Tree

Ornamental Lilac Crape Myrtle Tree in Bloom
Ornamental Lilac Crape Myrtle Tree in Bloom

Crape myrtle trees (Lagerstroemia indica), native to Asia and Australia, are popular for so many good reasons. In winter, elegant bark with hues of grey, taupe and tan give the tree superb winter interest. In late spring, the emerging light greens and soft oranges of foliage add an ethereal quality to your garden. Those August flowers seal the deal. In colors from white to pink to the deepest of reds and purple, the large flowers just say summer. And the bloom time. Many flower from mid-July to September!

There are more than 40 varieties of crape myrtles. Some are smaller, growing up to 10 feet while others are large 40 foot tall trees. All thrive in full sun. Crape myrtles not able to get full sun become leggy as branches reach higher and higher in search of solar solace. Crape myrtles in shady locations are more susceptible to bark scale. Bark scale, a pest from Asia with no predators here, has over the past several years made its way to crape myrtles as far north as Pennsylvania. The bug removes sap and nutrients from the bark and produces a sticky substance that coats the tree bark and plants around it with a black film. Please click here for more information about crape myrtle scale.

As reported by the Washington Post recently, the City of Washington D.C. recently suspended planting new crape myrtles because of the scale issues. Which got me to thinking. Which native trees would be great substitutes?

When looking for a native substitute for an ornamental plant, I start by identifying the traits I most like about the ornamental plant in the first place. For crape myrtles that's easy: long lasting big flowers in August, winter bark and spring foliage.

Then I think about where the ornamental grows. Other than needing full sun, crape myrtles, once established, are pretty adaptable in terms of soil and moisture levels. And, while there are very tall crape myrtles, many are smaller trees. So, we are looking for a small tree for full sun with long lasting, pretty flowers, ideally in August, that can grow in different soil types and moisture situations. Here it goes!

First step, consulting "Essential Native Trees and Shrubs of the Eastern United States." This is such a fantastic resource for so many reasons. You can read more about the book and authors here. Handy lists allow you to search trees by winter interest, size or preferred light conditions and many more attributes. Here is what I came up with.

Fringe Tree

Long lasting flowers(y)

Pretty flowers (y)

August flowers (n)

Soil adaptable (y)

Winter interest (n)

Fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus) is a small tree that grows to about 15' high and wide in full sun or part shade. It is native from the southern part of Pennsylvania down to the southeast and over to Texas. This tree grows in the wild in moist and dryer upland areas. It does the very best in moist acidic soils. Ours, planted as a sapling five years ago, is sited in average clay soils and doing well.

The white flowers on these trees are beautiful, unique, fragrant and long lasting. Unlike the blooms on many trees, soaking rains and winds don't blow the flowers away. Since fringe trees bloom in April and May, this is a very good thing. Female trees have blue olive like fruits later in summer. Autumn color is yellow. The downsides -- fringe trees are slow growing. To me, totally worth the wait! Please note there is a very similar looking asian fringe tree (Chionanthus retusus) often sold at garden centers.

Native fringe tree is available at Unity Church Hill Nursery on the Eastern Shore.

Red Buckeye

Long lasting flowers (n)

Pretty flowers (y)

August flowers (n)

Soil adaptable (y)

Winter interest (n)

Red buckeye (Aesculus pavia) is a small tree that grows to about 15' high and wide in full sun or part shade. It is native to central and coastal Virginia south to Florida and parts of Texas north to Illinois.

Most sources say the tree grows best in moist soils. Mt. Cuba says it can adapt to medium and dry soils as well. Ours, though still very young, is planted in the tree lawn between the sidewalk and street and is going strong in challenging conditions without any supplemental water.

Here is the thing. Those flowers, albeit in spring, are so crape myrtle like. Spring foliage: it's fascinating as the palmate leaves unfurl. The downside -- red buckeye doesn't have much fall color or winter interest.

You may also find a hybrid of this tree known as the red horse chestnut (Aesculus carnea 'Briotii'). It is becoming more popular as a street tree. This is a cross between our native tree and the European horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum). While they look similar, the flowers on this hybrid are pinker than the red flowers of the native.

The native red buckeye is available at Kollar Nursery and by mail from Direct Natives in Middle River.


Long lasting flowers (y)

Pretty flowers (y)

August flowers (n)

Soil adaptable (y)

Winter interest (y)

Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis) is a small tree that grows to about 20' high and wide in full sun or part shade. It's native range includes the Mid-Atlantic. The bright color of blooms is similar to the color of flowers of the many lavender crape myrtles.

Redbuds grow well in a wide range of soils. They are planted as street trees, understory trees and specimen trees. Redbuds have a graceful shape and three seasons of interest: striking spring flowers, heart shaped leaves and strong yellow fall color. Seed pods also provide fall and sometimes winter interest. The flowers bloom in early spring before the tree leafs out and last several weeks.

Native redbuds are available at many native plant nurseries including Kollar Nursery and by mail from Direct Natives in Middle River, MD.

You might make the case for serviceberries and magnolias too - all good alternatives. Alas, I do not know of a native tree with big showy flowers in August. These are the trade-offs. Dr. Doug Tallamy reminds us crape myrtles are not related to any North American lineage of plants and so it is unlikely insect specialists will be able to use it. The wildlife value of these other trees is the big plus. Fringe trees, redbuds and red buckeyes provide nectar and pollen for pollinators and hummingbirds in spring. Birds feast on fringe tree fruits and eat redbud seeds in fall. Fringe trees and redbuds are host plants for a couple of butterfly and moth species. They are beautiful too. Choices!

Happy gardening.


We want you to be as excited about planting Chesapeake natives as we are. “Plant This or That” gives you a native alternative to popular plants. Other posts highlight really fabulous fauna native to the Chesapeake.

Nuts for Natives, avid gardener, Baltimore City admirer, Chesapeake Bay Watershed restoration enthusiast, and public service fan.

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