University of Florida

Stop Crape Murder!


Introduction

The crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica) is one of the most beautiful and popular flowering trees in Florida. Often called "the lilac of the South," this plant is tough, adaptable, and showy. Its blooms are large and long-lasting (up to one hundred days), and the tree has great fall color and attractive bark. It prefers a sunny, well-drained site and is relatively pest- and disease-free.

Many crape myrtle cultivars are available, ranging in size from miniatures to trees that grow to twenty feet or more. The crape myrtle is available in a wide array of flower colors including white, red, pink, and lavender.

It is important to select a cultivar that will be an appropriate mature size for the spot where you intend to plant it. Most local nurseries will label their plants with this information, which is just as important as flower color and bark appearance.

Late winter is the optimal time to prune crape myrtles. The purpose of pruning is to create a canopy in which air can circulate and all branches receive sunlight.

Consequences of Severe Pruning

Unfortunately, many homeowners and landscape professionals prune crape myrtle trees too severely. Topping--commonly called "crape murder"--can be very damaging and disfiguring to the tree. This practice results in a "witch's broom" appearance and a tree that is no longer in proportion.

Topping causes profuse growth at the site of the pruning, basal sprouting, and increases susceptibility to disease and insects. It encourages new growth that is too dense to allow air movement and light to reach the inner branches. Large "knobs" appear where trees have been trimmed repeatedly, and the topped tree has an unsightly appearance until new growth appears.

Although topping may result in larger blooms, those flowers will grow on thinner, weaker branches that will droop--especially after rain--and may even break. Topping may also shorten the life of your trees.

To properly prune crape myrtles, use the following techniques.

  • Remove suckers from the bottom of the plant.
  • Remove crossed, damaged, or diseased branches. For crossed branches, remove the weaker of the two limbs that are crossing or rubbing.
  • Prune the tips of the branches to remove old flowers. If old blooms are removed, a second blooming may occur.
  • Thin out small twiggy growth to allow air to better circulate in the canopy.

Rehabilitation

You have two options for rehabilitating a "murdered" crape myrtle.

  • The first method is to choose the strongest two or three sprouts from each stub and remove all of the other sprouts. This will encourage the remaining sprouts to be stronger and the canopy of the tree to be airier. If you follow this procedure for a couple of seasons, the tree is sure to be much improved in health and appearance.
  • The second--and more drastic--technique is to cut the tree back to within one to two inches of the ground while the tree is dormant. After two to three weeks of growth, select three to five of the most vigorous new shoots on each trunk and remove all others. Remove any new shoots that emerge later. Within three to five years, you will again have a natural-looking crape myrtle.

Spread the word among your friends and neighbors and eliminate crape murder. Use proper pruning techniques on your own trees, or ask your yard maintenance professionals about their pruning techniques. Remember to choose the appropriate size plant for the correct site, and prune very sparingly for beautiful crape myrtles in your yard.

Adapted from:

Improper Pruning Damages Crape Myrtles (pdf) by Daniel E. Mullin (2/2002).

murdered crapes

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