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Proper Pruning of Crepe Myrtles

Updated on May 29, 2017

Crepe Myrtle in Full Bloom

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What is the "Proper" 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 is butchered myrtles. Summer is not yet over, and the butchering has already begun.

Here are the four only good 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 low-hanging small limbs that will one day hang out over a walk, path, or lawn;

- To remove limbs that rub against each other.

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 past. This is because pruning encourages new growth, and 1) a freeze would kill any new growth, and 2) this plant blooms 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 2nd bloom cycle. To see how, go to How to Get a Second Bloom Cycle on Crepe Myrtles.

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, in order to prevent damage to the bark caused by the limbs rubbing against each other on windy days.

If your crepe myrtles have any small limbs that will hang out over a walk, path, or lawn as they grow larger, consider removing them now. To prevent limbs from causing people to have to duck under them when mowing grass or walking up your garden path, they should be removed while still small. 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

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The Place to Cut is at the Junction of Two Branches

This is a crepe myrtle that was badly damaged by a person who did not know how to prune anything. The red line drawn on the stump to the right shows where the cut should have been made for that branch. If made at that point, it would heal over 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, then pests would have invaded the tree. We had to clean up the "work" of someone else, and make additional cuts at the proper place. The only option for the stump on the left in this photo was to be removed at ground level because any new growth would be poorly attached to the stump. It would also produce unsightly "knuckles".

My Favorite Pruners

Fiskars 32-Inch PowerGear Bypass Lopper
Fiskars 32-Inch PowerGear Bypass Lopper

These are the best long-handled pruners I have ever used, and I have been through a lot of pruners. I know you will love them.

 

Torn Cut Invites Pests and Disease

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Leaving Torn Bark Invites Disease and Pests

Cuts should be smooth with intact bark at the cut.

This tree was badly damaged by one or both of the following problems:

- dull cutting edge on the pruners;

- work done by one who did not know proper pruning methods.

If left in this condition, the tree will suffer, and may eventually die.

Cut is Too Flat

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Another Invitation to Disease and Wood Rot

This Cut is Too Flat

Sometimes stumps left this high will put out new growth. Sometimes they die back and, over time, compromise the health of the entire plant. Either way, this is an invitation for disease to set in.

The cut should be made on a steep slant, so that water will run off, and not sit there and soak into the raw wood, causing rot and decay. This is why fence posts are pointed, sloped, or rounded.

These plants are available in a shrub variety that doesn't grow as large

as the standards.

People who want them to stay small

should purchase the shrub type,

and stay away from standards

which are intended to become trees.

New Growth on Old Stumps From Improper Pruning

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"Crepe Murder" is the name given to the act of cutting them back to only a few tall stumps. After being cut back so severely, the new growth becomes tightly arranged, and over time will produce these knotty bumps that remind me of severely arthritic knees. If cut back in this manner each year, the tree will appear terribly deformed, as this one does.

Although leaves and blossoms will hide the damage on trees that have been butchered as these have, 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.

These trees were butchered again a few days after I took this photo. The best thing that could happen to these trees now is to be cut off at ground level, and to be allowed to start all over.

These plants are available in a shrub variety that doesn't grow as large as the standards. People who want them to stay small should purchase the shrub type, and stay away from standards which are intended to become trees.

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Standard vs. Shrub

What's the Difference?

Crepe myrtles come in shrubs and "standards". A standard is a crepe myrtle that has been hybridized, pruned, and trained to grow into the shape of a small ornamental tree, but 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 to the future. Unless they have plenty of space, they will need pruning from time to time. There is a proper way to prune these trees, and a way that will ruin the shape forever. The only cure is to cut a badly butchered crepe myrtle to the ground, and let it start over.

After growing large, the crepe myrtle tree offers a beautiful spreading canopy that provides shade for an underplanting of impatiens and other shade-loving bedding plants, perennials, foliage plants such as liriope and hosta, as well as 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.

New Leaves on Butchered Myrtles

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When crepe myrtles that have been severely pruned finally put out new growth, they resemble short squatty trees that have received a Butch haircut. This photo was taken at the entrance to a community a few miles from my home. Compare these sad-looking trees to the one in the photo below.

Graceful Canopy of a Non-Butchered Myrtle

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This is a Natchez crepe myrtle that was allowed to retain its natural shape. Note the lovely broad canopy. This is a photo I took at a local shopping center just prior to blooming.

Natchez Crepe Myrtles Provide Nice Shade

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The Natchez

The "Natchez", one of my favorites, because of its spreading canopy and great height (for an ornamental), has 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.

This is a photo of two Natchez crepe myrtles I had installed in front of our home near Charlotte, North Carolina, where we lived for almost nine years. Unfortunately, I don't have a photo of the trees in bloom. In this photo, the trunks of the one on the left blend in with the corner of the garage, and don't show up very well. The canopy of the two trees grew together and provided a nice shade for our front door. When they bloomed in mid-to-late May through June or early July, they were like two giant, but graceful snowballs. The photo below shows 2 Natchez in full bloom behind a local place of business.

White Blooms of the Natchez Crepe Myrtle

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Here's a Close-up of those Natchez Myrtles Above

Here's a Close-up of those Natchez Myrtles Above
Here's a Close-up of those Natchez Myrtles Above | Source

"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". For a further discussion among gardeners about this ongoing argument go to: http://forums.gardenweb.com/discussions/2223670/crepe-or-crape-myrtle. For some reason, I cannot seem to make this link clickable in a manner acceptable to HubPages. I have visited the site, and saw no problems with it.

"Watermelon" Crepe Myrtle

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Natchez Myrtle in Winter

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All Crepe Myrtles are Decidious

That is, they lose their leaves in winter.

This photo shows a newly installed Natchez crepe myrtle in winter. Late winter-to-early spring is the perfect time to do any necessary pruning. Note that I said necessary pruning, not butchering. The photo was taken in my former neighborhood near Birmingham, Alabama, USA.

Beautiful Peeling Bark of Crepe Myrtles

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Crepe Myrtles Have Beautiful and Interesting Bark

The bark of crepe myrtles varies among types of plants, with some having peeling bark and some having smooth bark. Those with smooth bark also have outer layers that peel off, but do not stay partly attached.

The color of bark also varies among the different types of myrtles, and ranges from a light sandalwood and silvery-gray to dark cinnamon. The color variations and peeling bark add textural interest to the winter landscape.

For a list of the names, flower colors, bark colors, height, width, and shape of crepe myrtles, this site at Clemson University Cooperative Extension Home and Garden Information is very helpful.

Do You Commit Crepe Murder?

Do you commit crepe murder?

See results

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 comment to let me know you dropped by for a visit.

© 2011 MariaMontgomery

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    • MariaMontgomery profile image
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      MariaMontgomery 3 years ago from Central Florida, USA

      @aaxiaa lm: I do too. I think it may be my favorite color for these trees.

    • aaxiaa lm profile image

      aaxiaa lm 3 years ago

      I love the watermelon one!

    • MariaMontgomery profile image
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      MariaMontgomery 3 years ago from Central Florida, USA

      @Dusty2 LM: I wish people would call experts before doing that type of severe pruning. Unfortunately, lots of yard maintenance guys don't know any better, and actually believe they are supposed to do it. Imagine that! It makes me mad to think about it. But we can't control everything, right? Thanks again for your nice comment and the thumbs up on this, one of my favorite of my lenses.

    • Dusty2 LM profile image

      Dusty2 LM 3 years ago

      I love crepe myrtles and their fragrance. However, they must not like the climate here. I have tried to grow several crepe myrtles and all did not make it the second year after planting. Anyway, I really appreciate you sharing this lens as you provided some really good info on how to not butcher them. I liked seeing the photos of the healthy crepe myrtles but was saddened to see the butchered ones. Why don't people call the experts if they do not know how to properly prune a tree so they can be enjoyed like they were meant to be? Sorry; it just makes me sad to see trees improperly cared for! I appreciate you stopping by my ULTRA AeroGarden lens and giving it a "thumbs up". Thank You!

    • MariaMontgomery profile image
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      MariaMontgomery 3 years ago from Central Florida, USA

      @SamiPearl: Do you know whether it is a shrub or a standard? If it is a shrub, I wouldn't prune it at that height. If it is a tree, I would prune only to achieve the shape I wanted. For example if there side shoots forming down low on the main trunks, I would remove them. If there are any branches growing toward the center of the tree, I would remove those. Other than that, I would just let it grow for now. Be sure to mulch it well to prevent grass and weeds from growing around and among the trunks, and to keep the soil cooler. Thank you for visiting my lens and for the squidlike. You may also enjoy my new lens, How to Get a Second Bloom Cycle on Crepe Myrtles. Let me know how your little plant gets along.

    • MariaMontgomery profile image
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      MariaMontgomery 3 years ago from Central Florida, USA

      @Virginia Allain: Make 'em do it right! I've noticed a lot of those guys really believe that's the way it should be done. So I don't let them touch my myrtles.

    • SamiPearl profile image

      SamiPearl 3 years ago

      Do you have any specific tips for pruning baby (and I mean baby. I bought it for $10 3 falls ago now) crepe myrtles? So far I've just let it go because it's so tiny. It's about 3-4 feet tall now.

    • Virginia Allain profile image

      Virginia Allain 3 years ago from Central Florida

      We have a landscaping service as part of our community package in Florida. It's nice to have everything trimmed and weeded and taken care of. Unfortunately, it seems like they are doing it wrong in trimming our crepe myrtles. Auugh.

    • paperfacets profile image

      Sherry Venegas 4 years ago from La Verne, CA

      I love Crepe Myrtle bushes and trees. It should be the next tree I buy for the yard. Their color is fabulous.

    • MariaMontgomery profile image
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      MariaMontgomery 4 years ago from Central Florida, USA

      @lionmom100: If you have the space, you must have at least one. The provide blooms for such a long period. Thanks for the nice comment and for the squidlike on this lens.

    • profile image

      lionmom100 4 years ago

      I love Crepe Myrtles, but do not have any. They seem to do fine in my area though and there are some beautiful ones about two blocks away.

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      Aunt-Mollie 4 years ago

      I love these trees and they do love the Southern climate.

    • MariaMontgomery profile image
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      MariaMontgomery 5 years ago from Central Florida, USA

      @anonymous: Thank you. You, too. Also, thank you for the squidlike on this lens.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Nice trees. Have a great weekend.xxx

    • MariaMontgomery profile image
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      MariaMontgomery 5 years ago from Central Florida, USA

      @KimGiancaterino: I wish that were the case around here about the crepe myrtles. Years ago, I had hybrid tea roses that hung over my neighbor's back yard fence. When I told him that I would trim them back a bit, he said, "Don't you dare cut those roses! They look just as pretty from my side as they do from your's." We both need more neighbors like that one, huh?

    • KimGiancaterino profile image

      KimGiancaterino 5 years ago

      We have 4 crepe myrtle trees in the front garden and I barely trim them. The gardeners in Los Angeles seem to have crepe myrtles down -- you seldom see butchered versions. However, we have crazy neighbors who don't tolerate any type of encroachment. Some of our other plants have been ripped out or broken off with bare hands. I planted the crepe myrtles far enough inside the garden that they shouldn't be a problem.

    • MariaMontgomery profile image
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      MariaMontgomery 5 years ago from Central Florida, USA

      @JoshK47: Hello again, Josh! Thank you so much for the squidlike, comment, and angel blessing on my lens about how to prune crepe myrtles. That lens is on a topic very near to my heart.

    • profile image

      JoshK47 5 years ago

      Excellent information! Thanks for sharing! Blessed by a SquidAngel!

    • MariaMontgomery profile image
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      MariaMontgomery 5 years ago from Central Florida, USA

      @tracy-arizmendi: Yes it is. Thank you for the squid likes on 2 of my lenses, and for your comment. Also, thanks for letting me know about double points for today. Guess I'm not paying attention.

    • tracy-arizmendi profile image

      Tracy Arizmendi 5 years ago from Northern Virginia

      Here in Virginia I see crepe murder all the time!!! It is just awful to see how many people butcher their crepe myrtles up here!!!

    • PapaKork profile image

      PapaKork 5 years ago

      I was doing it all wrong! I'm sure my crepe myrtle will appreciate this useful information the next time I prune!

    • profile image

      trendydad 5 years ago

      nice lens for proper pruning

    • profile image

      sheezie77 5 years ago

      Very nice post Thumbs up!

    • CoeGurl profile image

      CoeGurl 5 years ago from USA

      We had crepe myrtles when we lived in Tennessee. They are so beautiful. Thanks for this information on how to properly prune them.

    • cathywoodosborn profile image

      cathywoodosborn 5 years ago

      So glad I found this lens. My husband and I were talking about the need to prune our lovely Crepe Myrtle just a couple of days ago.

    • Countryluthier profile image

      E L Seaton 5 years ago from Virginia

      My trees sadly were getting butchered about the time this great lens on proper trimming was gettng published. The good news is one was missed and the others will be trimmed better in the future. Blessed by COUNTRYLUTHIER.

    • Mickie Gee profile image

      Mickie Goad 5 years ago

      My husband is threatening "murder" on my myrtles! Help! I am sending him this page so he can read it.