Proper Pruning of Crepe Myrtles
The Ruffled Flowers of Crepe Myrtle
The Correct Way to Prune a Crepe Myrtle
Crepe myrtles are sun-loving ornamental trees and shrubs found throughout the southeastern United States and are beloved by everyone. Unfortunately, the proper pruning of crepe myrtles is seen less and less — more often seen are butchered myrtles. While most people prune their myrtles during winter, the butchering often begins before summer is over. Pruning of these trees should be done in late winter, after the chance of a freeze has passed.
Crepe myrtle trees have beautiful spreading canopies and provide shade for an underplanting of impatiens and shade-loving bedding plants including perennials, foliage plants such as liriope and hosta, and a variety of ground covers. They also can be underplanted with sun-loving bulbs because the bulbs usually bloom prior to the trees getting their leaves.
Conditions for Pruning
Crepe myrtles lose their leaves in winter, so any necessary pruning should be done during late winter or very early spring. Note that I said necessary pruning, not butchering.
Here are four (and only four) reasons to prune a crepe myrtle tree:
- to remove dead wood, more commonly called "deadwood;"
- to remove limbs and twigs that are growing back toward the center of the tree;
- to remove limbs that rub against each other; and
- to remove small, low-hanging limbs that will one day hang out over a walkway, path, or lawn.
The Difference in Growth Patterns of a Natural Canopy vs. That of a Butchered Myrtle
One Butchered, One Not
The photo above shows the difference in the graceful canopy of a crepe myrtle tree that has been pruned correctly, beside one that was lopped off, a.k.a., "butchered". The new limbs of the butchered myrtle stick out in all directions, giving the appearance of hair after electric shock.
The palms and other growth hide the lower limbs of the myrtle on the left. It is a Natchez crepe myrtle, and has the lovely peeling bark.
When Can I Prune or Remove Dead Wood From My Tree?
Removing Dead Wood
Dead wood can be removed at any time of the year. Pruning of living material can be done in late winter or early to mid-spring after the danger of freezing temperatures has passed. Pruning encourages new growth, and pruning during a freeze should be avoided because:
- A freeze would kill any new growth.
- This plant blooms only on new growth.
To cut in late spring would be to remove flower buds. Crepe myrtles may also be pruned in summer after blooming is finished. In fact, by pruning immediately after bloom heads are spent, you can obtain a second bloom cycle.
A Torn Cut Invites Pests and Disease
Cuts should be smooth and the bark should remain intact at the cut to avoid injuring the plant.
Which Limbs and Twigs Should Be Pruned?
Any limbs and twigs that are growing back toward the center of the tree should be removed, as well as any that touch other limbs. This is done in order to prevent damage to the bark which may be caused by the limbs rubbing against each other on windy days. If two limbs are allowed to continue touching or rubbing together, they will eventually "fuse" together.
If your crepe myrtles have any small limbs that will eventually hang out over a walk, path, or lawn as they grow larger, consider removing them now. This will prevent causing people to have to bend to walk under them, for example, when mowing grass. It is much easier, as well as less traumatic for the tree, to remove the limbs before they grow large.
Where to Make the Cut
How to Trim Tree Limbs Without Killing the Tree
Cut at the Junction of Two Branches
My tree pictured above was badly damaged by a person who did not know how to prune anything. The red line drawn on the stump shows where the cut should have been made for that branch. If made at that point, it would heal nicely. If left like this, with the bark ripped away from the raw wood, it would have been only a matter of time before disease and pests invaded the tree. To prevent further damage, I had to clean up the "work" of someone else and make additional cuts at the proper place.
Cut at a Steep Slant
The cut should be made on a steep slant so that water will run off and not sit and soak into the raw wood which can cause rot and decay. This is why fence posts are pointed, sloped, or rounded.
Trim at the Correct Angle, But With Sharp Pruner Blades
Another Invitation to Disease and Wood Rot
What Is Crepe Murder?
"Crepe Murder" is the name given to the act of cutting crepe myrtle trees back to only a few tall stumps. After being cut back so severely, the new growth becomes tightly arranged and will produce knotty bumps. If cut back in this manner year after year, the tree will appear terribly deformed (as shown below).
Although leaves and blossoms will hide the damage on trees that have been butchered, you can easily pick out a tree that has received this treatment from one that has not. In winter while the trees are bare, they look hideous. When crepe myrtles that have been severely pruned finally put out new growth, they resemble short, squatty trees with butch haircuts.
Correcting Crepe Murder
The only cure for Crepe Murder is to cut a badly butchered plant to the ground and let it start over.
Standard Versus Shrub Crepe Myrtles
Crepe myrtles come in shrubs and standards. Shrub myrtles will grow to a height of several feet, but will never look like a tree. A standard is a crepe myrtle that will become a small ornamental tree, but small is relative — they are small only when compared to large, majestic trees such as oaks, or when butchered. The standards can grow quite large, so they should be planted with an eye for the future. Unless they have plenty of space, they will need pruning from time to time. As discussed above, there is a proper way to prune these trees and another way that will ruin the shape forever.
Why Purchase the Shrub Type of Crepe Myrtle?
People who want their crepe myrtle to stay small should purchase the shrub type and stay away from standards which are intended to become trees.
White Blooms of the Natchez Crepe Myrtle
Bird's Eye View of the Natchez Flowers
A Personal Favorite: The Natchez Crepe Myrtle
The Natchez is one of my favorite cultivars of crepe myrtles because of its spreading canopy, great height (for an ornamental), and large clusters of snow-white flowers. It grows to over 30 feet in height with a top spread of about 15-20 feet in diameter.
I installed two Natchez crepe myrtles in front of our home near Charlotte, North Carolina, where we lived for almost nine years. The canopy of the two trees grew together and provided nice shade for our front door. When they bloomed in mid-to-late May through June or early July, they were like two giant, graceful snowballs.
The Watermelon Crepe Myrtle
Certain Species of Crepe Myrtles Have Beautiful, Peeling Bark
The bark of crepe myrtles varies; some have smooth bark, mottled bark, or exfoliating bark. The color of bark also varies among the different types of myrtles, and ranges from light sandalwood to silvery-gray and dark cinnamon. The color variations and peeling bark of crepe myrtles and other trees add textural interest to the winter landscape. The photo below shows the exfoliating, cinnamon-colored bark of the Natchez cultivar.
For a list of the names, flower colors, bark colors, height, width, and shape of crepe myrtles, Clemson University Cooperative Extension Home and Garden Information is a wonderful source.
Beautiful Peeling Bark of Crepe Myrtles
Is It Crepe or Crape Myrtle?
Some people spell the word crepe with an "a" (crape), presumably because the first "e" is pronounced as an "a." This is an anglicized pronunciation of a French word. In the South, we spell it crepe—the same as in crepe paper. Gardeners debate among themselves about this ongoing distinction.
Do You Commit Crepe Murder?
Do you commit crepe murder?
Happy Pruning to My Fellow Gardeners
Thank you for reading my gardening article. I hope you will take to heart the pleas of many gardeners not to commit "crepe murder." Please leave your comments to let me know you dropped by for a visit.
Questions & Answers
How far back should seeds of a crepe myrtle be pruned?
I apologize for being so long in replying. I haven't logged on for a while. Just remove the entire group of seed pods. If you didn't do it last summer, wait until any chance of freeze or frost has passed. Pruning encourages new growth, and the tender new growth could be damaged by freezing temps or frost.Helpful 1
I have had my (Natchez) Myrtle for about 27 years, and do "murder" about every 5 years, as I did this year. I have wormy looking things hanging off the trunk. Never have seen this before. It comes off easily just by rubbing. What is this wormy thing on my Crepe Myrtle?
Without seeing it, I can't be sure. Here in central Florida, our myrtles get lichens on the trunks. Some of the lichens are fuzzy, some are "peely" for lack of a better word. They won't harm the tree, but I prefer to see the beautiful peeling bark, so I wear gloves and rub (or scrub) it off. If you don't believe your "wormy things" are lichens, you can send me a photo at email@example.com
I have a very beautiful large crepe myrtle (+20ft) planted by the previous owners that has grown into my house, and I need to cut it back. If I cut just the branches that are growing into the house, I think it will look lopsided. An arborist told me just to cut the top off (about 10ft). If I do this, will it eventually fill itself out and still bloom?
It's fine to remove the part that has grown into the house. Just be sure to make your cuts are at a joint, as shown, and be sure to cut on a slant, so water will run off. To prevent a lopsided appearance, you could remove some all the way around the tree, maybe removing more on the side by the house. Be sure to wait about pruning until danger of a freeze is passed, because pruning encourages new growth that can be damaged in a freeze or frost.Helpful 2
How can I correct my 20 foot butchered myrtles?
It depends on how badly they are butchered. If they look as bad as the one I referred to as appearing to have "knobby arthritic knees" I would cut it all the way back to the ground, and let it start over. They grow amazingly fast, so it shouldn't be long before they're tall again. If they're not too badly butchered, you could simply stop the incorrect pruning, and begin pruning correctly, or not prune at all. Of course, if they have branches scraping against your house, or if they are hanging over your neighbor's property, you may want to prune them. Be sure to wait about pruning until danger of a freeze is passed because pruning encourages new growth that can be damaged in a freeze or frost.Helpful 2
Can I remove the flowers of the crepe myrtles after they bloom so they don't fall off everywhere?
You definitely can. If you remove the whole cluster of immature seed pods as soon as the flowers drop, you will get a 2nd bloom cycle. Then to prevent seeds forming, remove the next set of seed pods before they ripen.Helpful 1
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