Master Gardeners – Crepe Myrtles: Stop murdering and start pruning – Orange Leader

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By John Green

Texas Certified Master Gardener

Spring is approaching other gardeners and with it a host of gardening tasks. One of my favorite spring gardening tasks is trimming small trees and shrubs. There is a small tree with several trunks (Where tall shrub) that comes to mind, where simply too many fellow gardeners succumb to the practice of crepe myrtle butchery. It is more commonly known as “killing” crape myrtle. In 1997, an article in Southern Living magazine referred to the late fall and winter practice of severely cutting crape myrtles down to the heels as “crape myrtle murder”. The coined phrase remains in use today, unfortunately, as does the practice.

Many of you know exactly what I’m talking about. Drive through any of our cities and neighborhoods in the golden triangle and the effects of this unfortunate type of reduction (pruning) are evident everywhere. Some gardeners and landscapers believe that severe pruning or reducing crape myrtles to a few shorter trunks is a quick and easy job and a good way to reduce its size or force them to “fit” into a small garden. Crepe myrtles are trees no small shrubs and should not be forced into something they cannot be quickly overcome with a chainsaw.

Pruning crape myrtles with a chainsaw and removing all the top growth may initially seem like the quickest and best route for us, as it certainly speeds up the pruning process. At what price for the tree? Note that the fastest pruning method is NEVER is going to be the best pruning method. Butchering the trunks of crape myrtles and cutting their trunks to the same height or length forces the tree to grow from where the pruning took place, the area where the trunks were cut. Using this “murderer” year after year the tree will form mangled knots diminishing its beauty for many years. Additionally, using this quick pruning method can also cause injury to the tree, weaken multiple limbs and damage them, and even shorten the life of the trees. Just remember crepe myrtle”murderis harmful to the aesthetics of the tree by diminishing its beauty, making them unsightly with unsightly knots and black fungus growing on the knots after a few years. Thin, weak branches will grow from cut areas that cannot support the weight of the flowers and will break with gusty winds. The knots formed grossly detract from what should be a tall, graceful, swollen, vase-shaped tree structure, lending a profusion of blooms for the spring and summer months.

The following tips will guide you in pruning crepe myrtles:

  • The best time to prune is now (winter)
  • Start by removing the shoots around the base of the tree (called suckers)
  • Remove dead and crossed branches (branches that rub against each other)
  • Misaligned branches (branches incongruous with the vase shape of the trees)
  • Remove branches that grow inward toward the center (maintain vase-like structure and circulation
  • Never leave partial branches, cut branches down to the trunk

Fun fact: Did you know that the spelling of crape myrtle changes depending on your location? Crepe myrtle is the more accepted “southern” spelling, but north of an unspecified crepe myrtle lineage it changes to become crepe myrtle.

For more information or to have your gardening questions answered by Orange County Texas Master Gardeners: Website: Facebook: Orange County Texas Master Gardeners Association Helpline : (409) 882-7010 E-mail: [email protected]