Stop Crape Murder: Don’t Cut Back Your Myrtles

January 25, 2015

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by the Santa Rosa County Extension Service

Proper pruning is one of the most misunderstood of all gardening practices, yet it is one of the most important procedures in a landscape. A common victim of bad, improper pruning is the crape myrtle. Crape myrtles will occasionally need pruning to obtain the desired landscape effect, but many times these plants are butchered for no good reason.

According to Dan Gill, LSU Ag Center Horticulturist, an unfortunate trend in crape myrtle pruning is to lop off their tops, which results in a tree reduced to large branches ending in stubs. The lush growth that occurs at these cut sites appears vigorous but is actually structurally weak and more susceptible to fungus diseases such as powdery mildew. And when pruning is conducted improperly over several years, unsightly large, swollen knobs form at the point where pruning is done each year.

Flowers are not the only virtue of this tree. Many varieties have beautiful bark and growth habits that can be enjoyed all year if trees are not heavily pruned.

Crape murder

This unsightly, ugly pruning known as crape murder is not recommended. Once it’s done, it ruins the tree’s graceful natural shape for the rest of its life.

Often gardeners think they are supposed to prune their crape myrtles that way, and nothing could be farther from the truth. Many think that crape myrtles need to be cut way back to bloom well. This is not accurate. The flower clusters may be larger on lopped trees, but the added weight on the ends of long branches causes them to bend over awkwardly, especially after it rains. And since the tree is smaller, it actually produces fewer flower clusters.

Many people say they need to cut a crape myrtle back because of its size. If the height of the crape myrtle is not causing a problem with a nearby structure or power lines, there is little reason to reduce the tree’s height. To cut a crape myrtle back for the vague reason of “it just seems too large” ignores the fact that these plants are trees. They are supposed to be large.

To prune a crape myrtle properly, first decide if it needs to be pruned. As with any pruning project, you must have a specific, valid purpose in mind before you begin. In other words, if you can’t come up with a good reason to prune your tree – leave it alone. If you do see something that calls for pruning, study the tree carefully and determine what needs to be pruned to accomplish the specific purpose identified.

There are a few valid reasons for pruning a crape myrtle. One reason is to eliminate crossed and rubbing branches because rubbing branches can lead to open wounds.

Over time, branches that are too low on the trunk will need to be pruned to raise the canopy. We often need to remove weak, thin branches from the inner part of the tree to produce a cleaner-looking tree. Selected branches may need to be pruned back to a side branch or the trunk to create a shapelier tree. Of course, you need to prune to keep suckers removed from the base of the trunk.

Generally, avoid cutting back or shortening branches much larger than your finger, although cutting larger branches back to a side branch or to the trunk when needed is fine.

Visitors to our area often marvel over our crape myrtles. During summer, their colorful flowers, attractive bark and beautiful shape make them among our most valuable landscape plants. Please appreciate this – and stop the unfortunate trend of hacking them back.

Pictured top: Crape myrtle trees do not need pruning  for new growth. Pictured below: These Crape myrtles were ruined with unnecessary topping. Submitted photos for NorthEscambia.com.

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Comments

26 Responses to “Stop Crape Murder: Don’t Cut Back Your Myrtles”

  1. BigRed on April 11th, 2021 3:17 pm

    “JIMMY on Long Island “
    His comment from 2020..
    Sounds like my new plan!

    Thank you Jimmy.

  2. BigRed on April 11th, 2021 3:13 pm

    I wish someone would please address this issue that was raised by an earlier commenter :

    When older trees haven’t been pruned in years, and are not blooming well..
    HOW SHOULD THEY BE PRUNED TO ENCOURAGE NEW BLOOMING?

    because although people complain about “crepe murder” , I’ve noticed that if you prune neglected crape myrtles back hard ( manslaughter as opposed to murder 1), they will start blooming again, like crazy.

  3. Jo Vogel on January 23rd, 2021 12:10 pm

    I fight the mites every year. They turn the leaves black and I cringe every time I have to mix up pesticides to put around the tree. What causes them to attack the trees? I then have a infestation of flies feeding on the mites. Help!

  4. Jan Wasserman on July 28th, 2020 3:37 pm

    We have several Crape Myrtle trees, in Southern California. They have always bloomed beautifully, but this year there are hardly any blooms and some of the trees have no blooms. I think they are about 15 years old. Should we feed them something? Any help would be appreciated. I’m so sad not to have the beautiful flowers.
    They are all different trees, I don’t know what subspecies.

  5. Bonnie on July 18th, 2020 3:39 pm

    Moved to new home in Alabama and have several Crape Myrtles that have not been taken care of in along time. When is the best time of year to prune back these beautiful trees/ out of control Crape Myrtles?

  6. Susana Springer on June 28th, 2020 8:44 am

    I have a beautiful myrtle already matured but looks more like a bush. Would like to trim branches at bottom to shape it more like a tree . Grown high enough where it’s almost in the power lines. Hopefully the light company doesn’t want it topped off! A small. One given to me last July for my birthday with a few tiny blooms I think may be dead after last years winter. I was told I didn’t need to cover it unless we got lower than 20 degrees. But a sprout is beside its truck. Hoping it’s from the myrtle and will cover it this winter! I’m in South West New Mexico. Cliff, NM 30 miles from Silver City
    Any advice would be appreciated. Thank you

  7. Pat Jensen on June 14th, 2020 2:30 am

    Muskogee Crape Myrtle Tree require full sun and are drought resistant. I have multiple trees and always dig a area around the tree so I can water deeply in the summer when it is hot.
    I’ve heard that when the roots come up it is because the tree is looking for water. My neighbors tree has branches in my yard but they are below the grass because it gets watered by my sprinklers. Her Birch Tree would have died years ago if I didn’t water my yard regularly.

  8. Pat Jensen on June 14th, 2020 2:21 am

    I have a nine year old single root base Muskogee Crape Myrtle Tree. It is beautiful and always has a large amount of flowering in the spring. I have never had it pruned except a few minor end of branches in the fall. I read this about pruning when the tree was young and stuck to it. I always hate it when people prune when it is hot and the insects are just looking to infestate.
    I live in Southern California and the summers are hot. This tree is a beauty and require little care except a deep watering once a week in the summer and some fertilizer stakes in the spring. Otherwise it is satisfied with the sprinklers and never appears to be in distress.
    My neighbor has tree trimmers prune her Crape Myrtle harsly every years and it always seems to come back but the branches do look heavy when it blooms.

  9. Jimmy - Long Island on April 16th, 2020 8:02 pm

    I have a Myrtle – Tuskegee. Planted it about 6 years ago. When I first got it found a site about pruning . They gave to ways to prune . The one I chose was the uniform cut. Which means every year – I do around St Paddy’s Day . I leave 6 to 8 inches of the past seasons growth and cut the rest on each branch. In March it’s easy to identify your new nodes . They come in pairs . I cut right above a set of nodes 6 to 8 inches from last years intersection . I have to say I like this method . For every one branch I cut I get 2 the upcoming spring. The tree so far has done me well . It’s very full at top with many many blooms. That I get around here in August. And the main stalks of the tree I watch during the year as they get fatter and they shed their bark . Awesome tree. Going to plant 2 other versions this year . Which I will probally follow your technique for the Red Rocket . Then also going to plant a dwarf – Purple Magic ! I Love Mrytles !

  10. Carol Warner on April 1st, 2020 8:42 am

    The roots of my crepe myrtle came up all around the tree. A friend and I cut them out. We also pruned the top, as usual. Have I murdered my crepe myrtle by cutting out the roots coming up from the bottom. Thank you.

  11. Kelley Clark on March 22nd, 2020 10:11 am

    Our crepe myrtle totally obscures our living room window. It needs to be cut back by 1/3 to below the window. If properly done will this damage the tree?

  12. Patti Reddecliff on March 12th, 2020 4:06 pm

    We live in Western Maryland. Learning how to care for our Myrtles. Should we remove spent flowere pods, “dead head”?

  13. Susan on February 19th, 2020 11:28 am

    We had an early cold snap and all the leaves on our CM are brown, dried and still on the branches. I had heard that February was the time to prune ifany is needed. These 2 are young about 5ft tall. Any suggestions?

  14. Dodie Forsyth on January 15th, 2020 10:10 am

    Just moved into a home where the CM has been cut back for many years, and now has those big round balls where it was pruned. Currently has dormant branches. What can I do to help it grow and bloom properly? I very much appreciate your help.

  15. Carol brunner on September 29th, 2019 11:38 pm

    in new jersey we had a tough winter 2 of our crape myrtle tonto have dead large branches on1/4 of the trees. they are 20 years old. should we cut off dead branches with no growth now and do regular trimming in february

  16. Star Smith on August 19th, 2019 8:22 pm

    My CM have lots of buds that aren’t blooming , what can I do? Some yellow leaves, big and beautiful, just not blooming. Thanks star

  17. Cheri on July 19th, 2019 12:56 pm

    My crepe myrtle is a disaster. It was blooming when we moved here 6 years ago. Then I received bad advice and pruned it in the fall. The next year I didn’t prune it at all. Since then the Gardner’s here all said to prune it back every February. I haven’t had more than a couple blooms a year since then and so far this year none. I’ve had powdery mildew almost every year, and ants covering it. It gets full morning sun until about noon then is pretty shaded, but we have such hot afternoon sun, I didn’t think that would be the problem. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

  18. Kendall Harris on July 13th, 2019 11:47 am

    I have several crepe myrtle 25+feet and up to this year bloom so beautiful but this year very few blooms if any appeared what can I do to help them? I have never trimmed most of them since i trim one 15 or so years ago and it stopped putting on as many blooms. I keep the sucker and low hanging limbs trim in February. Big beautiful trees with little or no blooms i need help please!

  19. Grace McCallum on July 11th, 2019 10:19 pm

    I have pruned my Myrtles the last 2 years to keep them short.. I’m reading to where they may not need pruning. Since I’m loosing one of my many years Myrtle; and after reading your article; I decided not prune them anymore.
    I will appreciate if you will advise me how to care for the Myrtles I have two new Myrtle’s I planted last year. They already bloomed this year. I don’t want to lose them. Please send me some advice. I will be so ever grateful for your thoughts.
    Thank you most kindly
    Grace

  20. Olivia Taylor on June 22nd, 2019 3:09 pm

    You may have convinced me not to prune my tall crepe myrtles. They’re so tall I didn’t realize they had begun to bloom since the blooms are at the very top, probably at least 20 feet high. I can’t really enjoy the blooms until they come on down the tree. We do have several others, however, and I can wait!

  21. Brandon on May 29th, 2015 6:20 am

    So I am stuck. My Crepe Myrtles had a hard winter. It is just about June and have no leafing. It appears through scratching that much of the top of the tree is dead. I am told I should cut back the dead branches to where it is alive. However to do this I would be labeled Crape murder. So either I get labeled a murderer :) or I let my trees sit there to never bloom again

  22. Richard Head on March 15th, 2015 9:15 pm

    Susan Booker reply: January or February

  23. Chrissy on January 26th, 2015 1:49 pm

    Someone should make sure the Escambia County school district landscape department sees this article. They’ve butchered the crepe myrtles at school sites and county locations.

  24. Susan Booker on January 25th, 2015 2:02 pm

    When is the best time to do the pruning?

  25. Steve Gallimore on January 25th, 2015 8:39 am

    Crape Myrtles are the most unique, beautiful trees. Long ago, I accidentally ruined my grandfather’s trees while he was hospitalized, as my mother had instructed me to go by his home and trim all the dead limbs for him. Being a young man completely ignorant of dormant vs dead, I proceeded to murder his beautiful mature old Crape Myrtles. When he got out and saw what I had done, he nearly relapsed! I felt terrible. I truly thought they were old dead trees! Today, it warms my heart to see a majestic CM in full tree bloom ~ so tall and proud they cannot possible be pruned!

  26. Cathy on January 25th, 2015 1:06 am

    The Crape Myrtles were murdered on Garden St where the School Board was and now they’ve destroyed the ones on Pace Blvd. They used to be so pretty when Gulf Power owned the property.





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