Do Crapemyrtles Really Need Pruning?

A common site around the county  at this time of year.

A common occurrence around the county at this time of year.

It is that time of the year when landscape crews are “pruning” crapemyrtles. I use the term “pruning” loosely since the practice is called “Crape Murder”. The yearly topping / butchering of crapemyrtle trees by landscape professionals has led to homeowners perpetuating the practice since they see it occurring in January and February throughout the county.

The Crapemyrtle:

crapemyrtle in bloom

Summer flowering of crapemyrtle.

Crapemyrtles (Lagerstroemia indica) are plentiful in Harris and surrounding counties growing and flowering throughout the summer. They naturally grow as upright, vase shaped trees with multiple trunks. Crapemyrtles provide landscape interest across multiple seasons; beautiful flowers in the summer, many have great fall color and others have interesting bark to admire during the winter.  A properly placed crapemyrtle will need little or no pruning in the landscape. Problems arise when we plant the wrong crapemyrtle in the wrong place.

Does topping crapemyrtles meet any of the requirements for pruning?

Trees are pruned to: 1) reduce risk, 2) maintain or improve tree health and structure, 3) improve aesthetics or 4) satisfy a specific need.  If we consider the topping procedure of crapemyrtles, the practice does not meet any of the requirements and contributes negatively to the overall health of the plant.

An extreme case of improper pruning.

An extreme case of improper pruning.

1) Topping a crapemyrtle does not reduce risk to property or people in the area since the plant is being managed to a constant height year after year.

2) Topping does not maintain or improve tree health and structure. The constant topping reduces the size of the plant canopy, which decreases the plant’s ability to produce food through photosynthesis. The branch stubs become larger over time resulting in more exposed wood that is susceptible to pests and diseases. Topping also results in an increased number of dead stubs and branches throughout the tree.

3) The aesthetics of the crapemyrtle is not improved by topping. The trees are quite unsightly after they are pruned, and the new growth in the spring is soft, fast-growing and unable to hold the flower heads upright resulting in bending and breaking of branches. Flowering is also delayed with blooms not appearing until late July or early August.

2015-02-04 09.57.47

This type of pruning will lead to weakened growth and an increased potential for pest and disease problems.

4) Topping does not satisfy a specific need since we are artificially forcing a plant into an environment where it should not have been planted.  Plant the right variety in the right place. Crapemyrtles are versatile, increased breeding has resulted in more than 100+ varieties ranging in size from 3 to 35 feet at maturity, there is a crapemyrtle available for every landscape need.

When should crapemyrtle pruning occur?

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A planting of crapemyrtles with minimal pruning showing the desired growth habit

If pruning is necessary, consider the following.

  • Prune for safety. Remove damaged or weak branches or lower limbs that may affect pedestrian or vehicle clearance or visibility.
  • Improve structure. It is easier to alter the overall appearance when the tree is dormant. The branching structure is visible and cuts can be selectively made.
    • Prune to remove crossing or rubbing branches.
    • Remove dead, damaged or diseased branches.
    • Branches growing towards the center of the canopy should be removed to create more air space.

Crapemyrtles can be a low-maintenance plant with minimal pruning with the correct variety and proper placement. Crape Murder would disappear and we would have better looking and healthier crapemyrtles throughout the area.




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