Proper Pruning of Crepe Myrtles
Crepe Myrtle in Full Bloom
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. Even before summer is over, and the butchering often begins.
Here are the only four 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 limbs that rub against each other
- To remove low-hanging small limbs that will one day hang out over a walk, path, or lawn;
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 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 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 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 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
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. I 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
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
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
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
"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.
Standard vs. Shrub
What's the Difference?
Crepe myrtles come in shrubs and "standards". The shrub type 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 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 another 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
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 former home. Compare these sad-looking trees to the one in the photo below.
Graceful Canopy of a Non-Butchered Myrtle
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
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
Here's a Close-up of those Natchez Myrtles Above
"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
Natchez Myrtle in Winter
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
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?
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