As I drive around cities and towns in late winter, I witness crimes of the botanical kind, most often committed against crape myrtles in urban areas. It seems as though the harsh pruning practice, widely known as “crape murder” is becoming more and more common.
Crape myrtles, Lagerstroemia spp, (sometimes spelled crepe myrtle) are one of the most common ornamental plants grown in the urban setting. A multipurpose plant group, crape myrtles are used as specimen plants in foundation plantings, as borders and privacy plants, and along road fronts and sidewalks. Being nearly bulletproof, these plants can handle most anything thrown at them, including getting their heads cut off year after year.
Though originally introduced to Charleston, S.C. circa 1790, crape myrtles have been extremely common for the past 50 or 60 years, with varieties such as ‘Natchez’ and ‘Carolina Beauty’ being widely planted throughout the South. Though still considered a “small” tree, the larger varieties can exceed heights of 35 to 40 feet. But since all plants start small, these larger varieties are sometimes planted where they grow much larger than needed for a chosen spot. This excess-of-tree often leads to the trees being improperly pruned (“topped” or utilizing the "heading cut") to heights of 4 feet or less. This topping takes a beautiful tree down to nothing more than a collection of trunks with no small or secondary branching. If your intent is to find a blooming shrub under 15 feet, consider crape myrtle 'Acoma', 'Hopi', 'Chickasaw', or 'McFadden's Pinkie'.
Other reasons for committing “crape murder” that have been discussed include health, increased number of blooms and wrong location. Many believe, often based on observation alone, that these innocent trees need to be pruned in this terrible fashion. Let me make this clear- THIS IS 100% FALSE!!!!. Generally speaking, trees and shrubs do okay by themselves. We prune trees because WE NEED to prune trees, not because they need us to do it for them. Sure, it can be helpful to remove broken or diseased branches to promote healthy growth but trees are pretty good at taking care of their problems without our help. The next argument that I have heard for butchering crape myrtles is that doing so will increase bloom numbers. This is also a widely spread myth. Crape myrtles are one of the many plants that produce flowers on “new wood” that is grown each spring. Although cutting the canopy back to the main stem(s) will give the illusion of more blooms, it is, in actuality, only concentrating the blooms to fewer branches.
Lastly, many people cut back crape myrtles for size reduction. When these plants were planted, they were small plants and had “small tree” printed on their tag. As we all know, descriptions are always relative to the surrounding. Yes, crape myrtles are smaller than a mature Southern red oak that can reach heights up to 80 feet, but next to a small ranch style house, a 3 story tree is quite significant in the landscape. Many crape myrtles were planted in city settings in very small areas, especially in the grassy medians of highways and roads. Once mature, these plants tend to be larger than the spaces they occupy-thus leading to acts of botanical cruelty.
So, how can we stop the perpetual culture of plant torture? Many people have heard the “Right plant, Right place” mantra that Extension professionals continue to preach, and have for years. There is true wisdom in these old words. Crape myrtle varieties are categorized as “Dwarf Form” (3-5 ft), “Semi-dwarf form” (5-10 feet), “Small trees” (10-20 feet) and “Large Trees” (20 feet and larger). Cultivars in the dwarf form include ‘Centennial’ which blooms a nice shade of purple, ‘Ozark Spring’ which is lavender and ‘Victor’ which puts on a show of dark red blooms for up to 85 days. If you are looking for the pure white blooms of ‘Natchez’ but need something shorter than 40 feet, consider the semi-dwarf variety ‘Acoma’. With high resistance to powdery mildew, recurrent blooming and a beautiful fall color, this tree would fit nicely into most any landscape setting. A favorite of mine is the cultivar ‘Tonto’ which blooms a fiery red and tends to have the form of a multi-stem shrub. For a longer, more complete list see http://www.ag.auburn.edu/hort/landscape/crapemyrtle2.htm
One last question remains that needs to be discussed- what should you do if you or someone else has already committed crape murder? This is a difficult question to answer. First, if the practice has been consistently done over a span of many years and you LIKE the way that it looks, just keep on whacking. If it has been done and you despise the look, there is really only one choice for you- start over. For those that are familiar with the growth habit of crape myrtles, we know that they are known for producing lots of sprouts from the crown of the plant each year- this habit is called “suckering”. Generally we try to prune these suckers off throughout the growing season to give the trees a nice clean appearance. But if you are looking to right a serious wrong, these suckers can be the perfect solution.
First, decide what you want the tree to look like in a few years- multi-stemmed or single- trunked. If you decide that you want a tree that has three main trunks, select and mark five of the best suckers and remove the rest. Now for the choice that you have to make; either leave the old trunks that have been haphazardly cleaved for another year or remove one or two of them down at ground level. Removing the older stems all at once, allows more plant energy to push the new suckers up. If you are nervous to cut them all down (I prefer the term “basal prune”), just leave them for another season or so and wait for the new stems to grow- and boy will they grow! Remember that the root system of the tree is still there and is ready to support a large canopy, plus this tree has the ability to make sucker growth. Those existing roots will really push the suckers up fast and will generate a lot more suckers from the crown. Be fastidious in your removal of the unwanted, excess suckers, and you’ll get faster results. Don’t forget to train the new stems to the look that you prefer. Within three years or so, those “suckers” will be become a nice sized tree again and will soon return the tree to its previous glory.
written by Hunter McBrayer of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System (ACES). He is housed at the Marshall County Extension Office, which is based at the Marshall County Courthouse in Guntersville, AL.
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