I recently delivered a presentation on pruning trees, and questions that often come at this time of year is the obsessive attention that we give to pruning an iconic belle of the south: our beloved Crepe myrtle (Lagerstroemia sp.) There is a pruning practice that is ingrained in our culture called topping, often referred to as “crepe murder”, unnecessarily applied to these beauties and disrupting the elegance of their natural growth habit. I urge our readers to reconsider pruning traditions that can lead to malpruning, and guide you to sustainable horticultural practices that support longer lives for our beloved plants.
Crepe myrtles have been a part of the southern gardening tradition for over 200 years. While there are reported to be about 50 species native to the Indian subcontinent and southeast Asia, the most common used tree on this continent are varieties of L. indica, native to China and Korea and introduced to the U.S. through Charleston, South Carolina estimated around 1790 by French botanist Andre’ Michaux. The species has all the right qualities that make it an appealing landscape tree, including drought and heat tolerance and few pests. When thinking of its natural beauty, consider its architecture: multi-stemmed with long, arching branches and smooth bark that appears muscular as it matures. The bark can exfoliate in early summer, providing eye-appealing contrast as the new under laying bark ranges in color from pale cream to bright cinnamon. There are relatively new cultivar introductions producing burgundy and bronze colored leaves, such as Black Diamond
series ‘Ebony Fire’, ‘Ebony Embers’, ‘Ebony Flame’ and ‘Ebony Glow’.
The real show stopper are their brilliant flowers, with cultivars producing a wide variety of colors from bright pink to white, even some with hot magenta and true red. The crepe-like flowers on all species are borne in clusters (panicles) on new growth, a biological fact that promotes the continued practice of topping right before leaf production in early spring. Keep in mind that excessive pruning can result in increased maintenance, as the tree will sucker and produce an abundance of stems in response. Repeated annual topping also leads to unattractive scarring, leaving bulbous, knobby stem tissue to stare at after fall leaf drop.
Remember that you can still promote flowering on Crepe myrtle by strategic annual light pruning rather than by chopping them off at their heads. Crepe myrtles will set seed after their first flowers are spent, and you can promote a second set of blooms by pruning off the clusters of seedpods. Continue to practice maintenance pruning throughout the year by removing dead branches and to maintain adequate airflow through the canopy.
I follow a simple motto when choosing plants for my landscape: select the right plant for the right place. I encourage you to browse online and visit Texas A&M Aggie Horticulture website “Crape Myrtles for Texas”: aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/databases/crapemyrtle/. This user-friendly resource allows browsing by name, size and characteristics. The website hasn’t been updated since 2005, but it’s a great starting point that contains information on standard varieties such as ‘Muskogee’, ‘Natchez’, ‘Catawba’ and ‘Seminole’. While you may find a tree with an appealing flower color, and I caution to pay attention to the tree size at maturity. There are compact Crepe myrtle varieties that grow less than 3-foot tall and other varieties that can top out at 30-foot. Purchasing the right sized tree can lessen the urge to top the trees to keep them at a lower growth habit. I encourage all of my readers to “stop the chop”, to think about this suite of plants and nurture them to show off their natural form.
In closing, I invite you to share your ideas and successes in your garden by browsing online to my Facebook webpage: facebook.com/stephenbhorticulturist. Thank you and see you in the garden.