There are horticultural atrocities taking place all over our city. I start noticing it in the winter along roadsides, in front of businesses, and even in neighbors’ yards. The offense is the seasonal decapitation of crepe myrtles (Lagerstroemia sp.), a practice that I un-affectionately refer to as “crepe murder.”
Crepe myrtles were introduced to the United States around 1790 in Charleston, South Carolina and have been a staple in southern gardens since. Over the next 200 years, gardeners have created more than 50 cultivated varieties that can fit almost any need in your garden. There are dwarf varieties that are more shrub-like and giants that can reach up to 40 feet tall. They also come in a variety of flower colors ranging from white to deep purple. They bloom in panicles of crinkled, colored flowers whose petals resemble crepe paper—hence the name! The tree should be vase-like in form with multiple trunks covered in smooth bark that is silvery and cinnamon-colored, which looks pleasing even when the tree is defoliated.
Luckily, “crepe murder” doesn’t actually kill the crepe myrtle because they are resilient, but it does cut the tree’s life span in half. This practice can turn a mature, graceful tree into little more than a hat rack.
First, it may leave the plant susceptible to disease and bugs. It also promotes weak branches and larger flowers, which isn’t a good combination. It leaves you with droopy branches you will have to play limbo with the rest of the summer, especially with the summertime showers. Also, you may not get as much color from the bark. If you feel the tree is too tall, it’s just a classic case of wrong plant in the wrong place. Rather than cutting it back every year, maybe relocate it and replace it with a smaller variety or use a completely different plant all together.
Why is this problem so prevalent? I believe it’s because everyone sees it done by our cities, landscapers, and neighbors so they assume they should also. Don’t follow everyone else. In fact, if you prune your crepe myrtles the correct way, they can look great year-round and live a full life.
Correctly pruned plants should appear to be untouched. Winter is the perfect time to do the deed. You should cut dead branches all the way back to the trunk. Cut all inward growing branches to open the center and increase air flow. Then remove all suckers around the base and side branching up to 4 or 5 feet. Also cut back any branches that are rubbing, crossing, or just seem out of place when you take a step back to look at the tree. Cutting back the unsightly seed pods is not necessary but can encourage an additional bloom cycle.
“Crepe murder” victims aren’t doomed. There’s a way to correct this, but it takes time. The first thing you will need to do is cut off the bulky knuckle that the branches are coming out of. Once new branches sprout, pick 2-3 on each trunk that you will save and cut back the rest every time they sprout. In a few years, the branches should be closer in size to the trunk and your crepe myrtle will be back on track and you can start using the pruning tips from the previous paragraph.
In conclusion, crepe myrtles don’t need to be lopped in half annually—no matter what your landscaper says. Fill them in on the negative side effects and the correct way to trim the plant. Don’t be a follower and commit “crepe murder” because everyone else does, instead show everyone how beautiful these trees can be when given the chance.