Keith Mickler: The savage treatment of our majestic Crape Myrtles. Tips on proper way to prune these trees.

Keith Mickler: The savage treatment of our majestic Crape Myrtles. Tips on proper way to prune these trees.

The correct way to trim a Crape Myrtle. Photo from Keith Mickler.
The incorrect way to trim a Crape Myrtle. Photo from Keith Mickler.

By Keith Mickler, county coordinator and agriculture agent


Blue in the face; does that term ring a bell, ever used it before? If you know the meaning of blue in the face that’s where I am at when it comes to stopping the most savage and heinous pruning I have every witnessed on one tree in particular and that’s our majestic crape myrtle.

I have spoken to thousands and reach many more through news articles and still losing the battle on the savage hack job. I just want to throw my hands up in the air and scream, “why want you people listen to me.”

Surely I am qualified to speak on the subject of pruning I think. Let’s see, I have a Bachelors and Master of Science in Horticulture, I am a certified Arborist (teaching only) through the International Society of Arboriculture, along with over 24 years of working as a County Extension Agent in two different states. One of my more famed talks is “Red Neck Pruning – What Not to do.” Yet still no one listens to me, not even my neighbors.

I know, stop tooting your horn Keith, done. I will give this thing one last try before never speaking again about the savage pruning of crape myrtles. Maybe it should come from someone else.

World renowned horticulturist/professor Bonnie Appleton from Virginia Tech wrote many times on the proper pruning of crape myrtle before her untimely passing in 2012. Below is one of them that appeared in The Virginian-Pilot.

CALL IT SHEAR ignorance. You’ll see it reflected in Hampton Roads landscapes in the unwarranted and simply destructive practice of “crape murder.” Strong words, but they’re needed to help stop this abominable cutting, which ruins the natural beauty of the crape myrtle. Northern gardeners envy us our “tree of 100 days’ bloom,” a plant widely seen on Norfolk streets.

Crape murder is an example of topping – a practice that is often called improper pruning, although I don’t think the words pruning and topping should ever even be used together.

By now everyone should be sick of hearing the many reasons not to top trees:

  • It upsets the tree’s food manufacturing capacity and reserve by severely altering the crown (shoot)-to-root ratio.
  • It removes most of the buds that would form a “normal” branch system while stimulating undesirable, upright, largely unbranched watersprouts that actually accelerate a crape myrtle’s growth rate.
  • It leaves large branch stub wounds that are slow to callus or close, and are prone to decay.
  • It creates hazards because weakly attached sprouts are more prone to break in wind and storms.

Two reasons are generally given for crape murder.

One is that dead flowers need to be cut off yearly to promote flowering. Wrong. Observe rarely pruned crape myrtles and you’ll not see them lacking in flowers from year to year.

The other reason cited is that they’ll get too big if they’re not murdered (topped) yearly. I can’t easily say no to that because trees may indeed get too big for their location if inappropriately sized cultivars were chosen to begin with. It’s a matter of right plant – right location. There are dozens of crape myrtle cultivars of all sizes and shapes, so there’s no excuse for selecting one whose height must be reduced each year.

Could it be that people just don’t realize that “crape murder” is a form of topping? Even so, is crape topping really anything more than just a visual or aesthetic problem to which some of us object? Is it really something that should be stopped at all stages of crape myrtle growth?

Research published by Drs. Ed Gilman and Gary Knox of the University of Florida showed several reasons that topping should not be a standard practice for producing or maintaining crape myrtles. Those reasons included a six fold increase in dead canopy stubs and an increase in the need to clean dead wood out of topped trees.

Though it’s great to try to prevent topping and crape murder on intact trees, what do we do with the millions of crape myrtles that have already been butchered?

Do we keep murdering them or can we do something to try to reverse some of the damage? We can and we should, although we can’t restore them to their original natural branch patterns.

As topping-induced watersprouts begin to increase in stem size, selectively thin the sprouts out using properly located branch collar cuts. Where five or six sprouts exist, thin them to the two or three that are attached at the widest – and strongest – angle to the stem. New growth can be directed outward to expand and round out the crown by encouraging not just vertical, but also horizontal, growth.

You may need to repeat this process for a few years in a row, and the scars, both physical and visual, will never completely disappear before a trained eye. But as a result of some selective pruning, you’ll have more sustainable or low-maintenance plants needing very little future pruning.

Remember that pruning, whether with proper or improper cuts, is a form of wounding. Since wounding causes crape myrtles to mobilize reserves to wall off wounds and produce new tissue we should minimize pruning – and prune only when it will result in the most healthy type of growth.

As well-trained arborists often say – “A properly pruned tree (crape myrtle) doesn’t look pruned; a murdered (topped) crape myrtle does.” 

Keith Mickler is the County Coordinator and agriculture agent for The University of Georgia/Floyd County Cooperative Extension. Located at 12 E. Fourth Ave., Rome, GA 30161 (706) 295-6210. Office hours are Monday-Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. 

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