While they may share similar common names, crepe myrtles (Lagerstroemia spp.) and wax myrtles (Myrica spp.) are separate genera of trees and shrubs that are very different in appearance and cultural requirements. Crepe myrtles are part of the genus Lagerstroemia, which is part of the plant family Lythraceae. Wax myrtles are part of the genus Myrica, which is part of the plant family Myricaceae. Despite their differences, both genera of trees and shrubs make valuable additions to the home landscape.
Crepe myrtles grow in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 7 through 9, while wax myrtles grow in zones 7 through 11.While wax myrtles do best in full sun and partial shade, crepe myrtles need full sun locations for optimum flowering. Wax myrtles are tolerant of sandy soils, salt spray and drought conditions, but they prefer slightly acidic soils and are sensitive to cold. Their leaves may brown and drop if temperatures drop below freezing. Crepe myrtles are also drought-tolerant, but unlike wax myrtles, they do not tolerate saline soil conditions.
Flowers and Fruit
While wax myrtle flowers are inconspicuous, crepe myrtles are prized for their showy purple, white or pink blossoms. Each large cluster of crepe myrtle flowers consists of hundreds of blooms, with petals that have a crepe-like texture. Although they don’t have showy flowers, wax myrtles are a prized plant for the home landscape as well, because of their aromatic foliage and berries that attract birds and other wildlife. The grayish-white fruits of wax myrtles appear in clusters on the stems of the previous season's growth. The brown fruit of the crepe myrtle is inconspicuous with a dry, hard covering.
Wax myrtles are a group of evergreen and semi-evergreen trees and shrubs. Their narrow, glossy green leaves also give off a pleasant smell when crushed. Crepe myrtles, on the other hand, are a group of deciduous trees and shrubs, which means that their leaves do change color in the fall, producing shades of yellow, orange and red.
The bark of wax myrtle trees and shrubs is typically light grey and smooth in texture. It is thin and easily injured. Wax myrtle branches droop as they grow, and may require pruning if planted along driveways or walkways. The bark of the crepe myrtle isn’t as thin, but peels in strips in early summer, revealing mottled new bark in shades of cinnamon, brown and bright orange. This color fades over the winter until it peels away the following summer. Crepe myrtles may defoliate in the winter, but they maintain their landscape interest as the trunk and branches are gnarled in a sculpture-like manner.
The showy flowers and foliage of crepe myrtles make them ideal as specimen plants, but crepe myrtles also make ideal buffer strips along parking lots and near decks and patios to add shade. Wax myrtles aren’t as showy but make excellent hedges or screens because of their dense foliage. Their salt tolerance also makes wax myrtles good beach plants. Birds and other wildlife are attracted to the aromatic foliage and fruit of wax myrtles, and the waxy coating of their fruit was used to make candles in Colonial times.