Saturday, January 29, 2011

Cut out the Cutting!

Do you have something that looks like this in your yard?

You are going to be accused of committing Crape-acide!
Lagerstroemia indica or Crape Myrtle is so named because of its flower petals that resemble crepe paper. This large shrub or small tree was introduced to Europe from China and India in 1759 and made its way to the America’s in the late 18th century. While it is commonly called a Myrtle, it is not a true member of the Myrtle family. Cultivars now range in size from dwarfs (about 10 feet) that can be grown in containers, to the full size ones that can grow to heights of 25 to 30 feet with a spread of 15 to 25 feet. Usually it is sold as a multi-stemmed trunk, but it can be trained as a single stem.
I mentioned the flowers resembling Crape (or Crepe) paper.

The flower colors differ greatly depending on variety, but the common colors are lavender, pink, purple, red, and white. They are also very long lasting, often called the "plant of the 100 day bloom". Many people also enjoy they exfoliating bark.
Crape Myrtles are low-maintenance and easy to grow if provided with sunny locations and soil with moderate moisture and fertility. They are very drought tolerant however, once they are established. This is one reason why they have gotten such a toe hold on the landscape of the South.
Choosing the right Crape Myrtle for your landscape requires evaluating where it will be planted, not just what color its flowers are. The smaller the space available, the smaller the Crape Myrtle (at maturity) should be, so be sure to choose a cultivar that will not require pruning to make it "fit" into the landscape.
Which brings me to the main topic of today's blog, pruning. Do you or someone you know do this to a Crape Myrtle?:
The practice of chopping off the tops of Crape Myrtle has become very commonplace. Many people believe that it is required to promote flowering; others prune because the plant is too large for the space provided.
One of the reasons that they are pruned in Winter is to get more flowers in Summer. Crape Myrtles produce flowers on new wood, so the idea is that the more you cut, the more new growth and flowers you'll get. This is actually semi wrong. The first thing it will do is actually reduce the amount of the blooms that will appear. Secondly, if the branches are cut back too far, it will cause the new branches to grow much too long and they will not be able to support the weight of the heavy blooms, especially during any kind of strong winds or after a nice heavy Spring rain. It will cause the branches to sag and many times they will break or snap. If this is not bad enough, research has shown that stem decay significantly increases when topping cuts are made, and that more dead branches also occur within the canopy. Just one more thing to think about, plants stressed by severe pruning are more prone to pests and diseases.
Why does this happen then? Many people see their neighbors doing it and feel the need to follow suit. If Joe down the street is doing it, then it must be the thing to do. I guess I should do it too. Another reason is topping these trees way back is easier and quicker than pruning them carefully. This is lazy and old school way of thinking.
How and why WOULD you need to prune a Crape Myrtle? The best time to prune the Crape Myrtle is actually in late Winter around February or even in early Spring, just before the Crape Myrtle goes on a growing spree. Cut branches selectively to encourage nice branching when the tree is young. If you remove a branch, make sure there is a reason. Almost all Arborists recommend removing crossing branches and branches growing toward the center of the tree. Side branches can be removed gradually up to a height of 4 or 5 feet to expose more of the trunk and give it more of a tree form. Small twigs or branches in the center can be trimmed out to create more open space for sun and air movement while the plant is dormant. You should also take out water sprouts in the canopy or suckers at the base of the tree. These are the leggy little things that seem to sprout out overnight.
Or, the easiest thing to do would be to just let Mother Nature do her thing and let them grow naturally, kind of like this:
Happy Growing!
Blog writers side note: As many of you that know me, know that Crape Myrtles are NOT one of my favorite plants. I think of them as messy and just not attractive. I do, however, hate them even more when they are turned into a hat rack and think that they should just be left alone.


  1. I just wrote about Birch-acide. Creepy, isn't it?

  2. Hey Christie,
    Did all four pictures come in when you read this?

  3. Sadly, yes :-) ( Poor buggers are cut!)

  4. No worries about cutting back here in Zone 5B Darren. The crape myrtles I have all freeze to the ground...or to the mulch if I remember to mulch everything is new growth every year.

  5. Hey Professor, good to hear from you! I was getting worried that you were abducted or something. LOL
    I didn't know anybody grew Crape Myrtles in Zone 5B. So basically they are only a shrub there? I don't imagine they have enough time to actually turn into a tree.

  6. Crape Murder is terrible! I cut mine to the ground because they were butchered and looked terrible. An eyesore on such a lovely plant...

  7. Thank you for posting this ! Now if only the Crape Murderers would listen !!

  8. People think just because it's done at government buildings, schools, malls, or at other so called professionally landscaped places that it must be correct. Chances are most of these shrubs & trees have been pruned by untrained workers who also do other maintenance. Always check with the professionals like those at area Gardens (Callaways is a great one in GA) to see how things should be done. Walter Reeves is our GA Garden Man for all pruning & growing questions. Thanks for posting! It's a practice that needs to be stopped!

  9. Your blog is really attention-grabbing for me; I will definitely bookmark your website. Thanks