There are other small flowering trees that will grow in Alabama
I suffer from a very common disorder that most people have never heard of called Crape Myrtle Fatigue Syndrome or CMFS. It tends to flare up about this time every year and the attacks are more pronounced when driving down roads with planted medians. I would not be too surprised to know you have never heard of CMFS since I just now made up the name, but I bet I am not the only person in Alabama suffering from this disorder. There is a cure for CMFS, but it won’t go away overnight. My goal for this article is less ambitious. I just want to let folks know there are a few other small trees that will grow in the South other than the ubiquitous crape myrtle. The trick is finding a small tree that blooms in late summer to replace the over-used crape myrtle.
One reason crape myrtles are used so heavily is there are not many late-summer blooming trees to replace it with in Alabama. However, there are at least four trees you might consider to add some variety to the landscape: Sevenson flower (Heptacodium miconioides), Titi (Cyrilla racemiflora), Goldenraintree (Koelreuteria paniculata or K. bipinnata), and Chastetree (Vitus agnus-castus).
The Sevenson is sometimes called the crape myrtle of the North because it has similar blooms and lives further north. There is a nice specimen at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens which suggests you can grow it in most of north Alabama successfully. This small tree has exfoliating (peeling) bark reminding you of some types of crape myrtles. Sevenson will grow in full sun to part shade and all kinds of soil. The plant will grow to about 10 to 20 feet tall at maturity. There have been some reports of a canker disease that may present a problem in some locations, but it is worth trying in north Alabama.
For those farther south, one of my personal favorites is Titi and it has the advantage of being a native in south Alabama. It is normally seen in wet or boggy areas, but will grow quite well in drier sites provided they are well watered until well established. Titi can be grown in full sun to partial shade and will grow from 10 to 20 feet tall. They have very pretty, white, six-inch long, drooping blooms and semi-evergreen foliage a little like a wax myrtle. This plant is spectacular as an informal hedge, mixed border or sparse woodland screen. Bees love this plant so you may think twice about putting it near walking areas, pools or patios.
It might be stretching it a little to class this as a late bloomer, but it does bloom in mid-summer and has multi-season interest. Goldenraintree is taller than the first two trees reaching upwards of 30 to 40 feet at maturity for the K. paniculata and a little smaller for the K. bipinnata. It is a beautiful thickly-branched tree and a nice, round shape. In addition to very pretty yellow panicles of blooms, the tree has very nice fall color (normally yellow). This is an excellent small shade tree because of the dense growth habit and would be small enough to not be a danger to structures.
Some claim the wood is a little weak, but renowned expert Michael Dirr at the University of Georgia said, "I have witnessed horrendous ice storms in Georgia but absolutely no damage to K. paniculata."
Last but not least is Chastetree. This plant is sometimes considered a substitute for lilacs which don’t do well in this area. The blooms are similar and come in blue, lavender, pink, purple and white. You may summer prune after the first flush of blooms fade and easily get a second bloom show in early fall. The plant will reach 10 to 20 feet and can be grown as a large shrub or small tree. This is a fairly tough plant and can withstand full sun to part shade and many soil conditions. It is moderately susceptible to severe freezes during establishment, but hardy enough after the first couple of years.
If you have shown symptoms of CMFS you may consider one of these substitutes. Now is the time to think and look, but wait until fall to plant. If you contact a local nursery now, they may be able to have the plant in by the fall planting season.
Tony A. Glover is a County Extension Coordinator in Cullman County.