Crape Murder Rates Still High Throughout The Southeast!

By Melissa Burdick

There's a very sweet elderly lady, we'll call her Geneva, who lives a few houses down from me; she has a crapemyrtle in her front yard. There's a helpful, slightly bombastic man, we'll call him Sam, who lives a few houses up on the other side; he has a chainsaw.

Sam is always willing to lend a hand to a neighbor for any little chore, from fixing a roof to busting up an old stump ... but one day he got it into his head that Geneva's crapemyrtle really needed to be pruned. And so out came the chainsaw and off went its head.

Topping crapemyrtles is an oddly persistent horticultural snafu that for some reason just won't go away. The crime is often called "crape murder" and it's easy to spot its victims: perfectly fine trees with attractive trunks that suddenly dead-end at grotesque, gnarly knuckles bristling with wimpy sprouts.

It would be easy to gripe about Sam's misguided pruning techniques and ridicule the job he did, but it would be completely unfair. After all, you can see professional landscapers throughout the Southeast doing exactly what he did and collecting money for it. The fact of the matter is that, besides removing dead or crossing branches and suckers at the base, crapemyrtles should never (never, ever) need drastic pruning.

So before you grab your loppers and saw, you need to stop and consider the consequences. The shape of topped crapemyrtles will never fully recover from the wound caused by abrupt mid-trunk cuts. The large wounds invite disease and pest infestations, weakening the tree's health. And, if that weren't enough, the resulting sprouts are often too wimpy to hold up any flowers that might form.

So why are people doing this to their trees? First and foremost, they're doing it because they see someone else do it and they don't know any better. Secondly, they do it because of an old wives' tale that it improves flowering, which it doesn't. Thirdly, unethical landscapers sell unknowing clients a job that doesn't need to be done. Spread the gospel -- educate your friends and neighbors: Don't top your crapemyrtles!

I suspect, since you subscribe to a horticultural e-newsletter, I might be preaching to the choir. For those of you who, through no fault of your own, are dealing with the aftereffects of crape murder, here are a few options to get you through the crisis and rehabilitate your tree:

Option 1: Turn the tree into a "cut-back shrub" and chop it down to about 1-2 inches from the ground in late winter. The following spring the trunk will flush out with a profusion of branches that will bloom in summer. The resulting shape is broadly fountain-like with branches that arch to the ground when in full bloom. It's actually a very pretty way to keep a crapemyrtle short without sacrificing blooms, although cutting it down to the ground every winter can be labor intensive.

Option 2: Cut the tree down to the ground in late winter. When the sprouts emerge in spring, select three to five of the most robust and remove the rest. These few branches will eventually become the trunks of the revitalized tree.

Option 3: Leave the topped crapemyrtle alone. Just don't do anything to it and let it do its best to recover on its own. It will look funny for several years, but eventually it will regain some of its natural shape and beauty. You can try to hurry the process along by selecting two to three of the strongest sprouts that emerge from each knuckle and remove the rest.

Option 4: Remove the tree entirely and plant a new one that will only grow to the desired height. There's no excuse for planting a tree that's going to get too big for the space. Plant hybridizers have been playing with crapemyrtles for generations, resulting in selections ranging from petite plants that barely reach your knee, to towering trees that can shade your house!


Melissa Burdick is the curator of herbaceous plants at the Norfolk Botanic Garden.


January Articles:

Crape Murder
Hot Plant! Winter Daphne
How to Build a Portable Lettuce Garden
Make More Green
Hay Bale Gardening

Notes from State-by-State:

Our New Magazines