‘Strike two!” says the umpire. Our favorite batter is at the plate, faithfully doing his best. But the pitcher seems to be in control of the situation. No balls. Two strikes. Ugh! The horticultural nemesis of the crape myrtle is on the mound and seems to have the situation well in hand. Fastballs, curve balls, change-ups. One minute the batter is the favorite in the contest, now the landscape seems to have changed. Everything is now against the mighty crape myrtle who has lost the advantage…our perennial summertime favorite is on the edge of defeat.
The crape myrtle hardly needs an introduction. It is one of the greats in our Southern landscapes. When other plants languished in our summer’s heat, it thrived and bloomed extravagantly and, heretofore, had no disease or insect pest problems. Oh, how we took it for granted. Yet this great champion of the gardening world is on the brink of disaster! The count is 0 and 2.
The first strike against it is, of course, how we have treated it over the years. We’ve lopped it; we’ve hacked it; we’ve chained sawed it, and still it would hit the ball out of the park anyway, blooming magnificently each summer. That’s why we love the crape myrtle- color, color, magnificent color.
This year, as the crape myrtle has come up to bat, the umpire has called “Strike two” against it. An insect disease known as ‘Crape Myrtle Bark Scale’ (CMBS) is attacking our beloved crape myrtle. A scale insect is a tiny insect that attaches itself like barnacles to the branches, twigs, stems and leaves of the host plant, then feeds on that host plant. The scale insect Acanthococcus lagerstroemiae is native to China, India, Japan and South Korea but was first found in Texas in 2004. Since that time, counties in East Texas, four counties in Arkansas, seven in Louisiana, five in Oklahoma have reported crape myrtles being attacked by this new insect pest. This pest has had devastating results. The word ‘pest’ seems to diminish the reality. Trees become ugly and marred. Branches die back. The ornamental value that the trees once had is all but nullified.
Trees in Nacogdoches County have been attacked as well. Dr. David Creech has reported this in a recent gardening column. My friend Rick Bertke of Evergreen Lawn Care (letsgoevergreen.com) says, ”We have not seen much in the way of Crepe Myrtle Bark Scale in Nacogdoches, ourselves, but what we have seen has been very severe. We have seen it on newly planted crape myrtles in two different landscapes.”
“Both took two applications of the insecticides Talstar (Bifinthren) and Safari (Dinotefuran) to get any level of control. We would then recommend a minimum of a yearly treatment, but two would be better, to prevent re-occurrence. As a side note, one of our customers pressure-sprayed his crape myrtles in between treatments, and it seemed to give more success.”
Rick’s assessment is what others are reporting. To have any continued success with the crape myrtles, horticulturists will have to treat them regularly with insecticides. “No insect pest or disease problem” will have to be removed from the plant’s description. CMBS spreads easily from plant to plant. The insect can be disbursed by wind, animals, and especially by ignorant groundskeepers as they top crape myrtles. Scientists say the dispersal potential of CMBS is high. Let me put this bluntly. You may not have CMBS on your crape myrtles, but your neighbor who uses a landscaping crew will infect not only his’s trees when they are topped, but those insects will migrate to your trees as well. In the end, this is ‘strike two’ for the crape myrtle. The question is, “Will there be a third strike and the crape myrtle will be out?”
The most devastating pitch of all will be when landscape designers and professional horticulturists begin to treat crape myrtles as a pariah in the landscape and stop recommending it. I, personally, am at that place. There will come a day when crape myrtle scale will inevitably attack in my very own landscape because I cannot control what my neighbors do with their crape myrtles. They may buy an infected one from a nursery. Their lawn service may spread the disease to hundreds of trees throughout the neighborhood, thus infecting mine that grow only yards away. Then it will be a war of chemicals and (good grief!) annual pressure-washing. At this point, I would say, “Strike three!” The crape myrtle is out.
Years ago I wouldn’t have skipped a beat if a customer wanted to plant a row of twenty crape myrtles on his property. Not today. You might just have one or two as an accent in your landscape, but CMBS is a game changer. The mighty crape myrtle is out.