I know I’m beating a dead horse here as most urban crapemyrtles (especially those around commercial businesses) have now turned into grotesque gnarly bark-scale factories. It’s sad and almost unimaginable that during my lifetime I’ve witnessed crapemyrtles go from one of the most gracefully branched trees to poster children for handing Cadillac keys to an adolescent. When I began my Extension career in 1987, I had never seen a topped or pollarded crapemyrtle. The first I ever saw was appropriately on the streets of Laredo when I was the Bexar County horticulturist in San Antonio in the late 1980s.
The practice then spread across Texas and eventually the entire Gulf South. While I was a horticulture instructor at Stephen F. Austin State University in the 1990s, I even coined the term “Crape Murder” to help stem the tide, but to no avail. In addition to “Stop Crape Murder,” I also spun out “Cut the Crap, Not the Crape,” and “Drop Your Girdle, Not the Myrtle,” but as you can see, nothing worked. Heck, it appears that I made it worse! Today crapemyrtles line up like sheep for their annual slaughter.
Paying someone to hideously maim your crapemyrtle is akin to hiring Dr. Nick to pull a beautiful set of pearly whites and implant broke, ill-fitting ones in their place. It’s horticultural, arboricultural, and artistic insanity and by far the greatest mystery of my career. It’s also proof that folks either don’t read or don’t care. I don’t trust anyone on earth (except me!) to prune my crapemyrtle allée. I grew them from little cuttings so they are my children.
I’ll start with my usual list of why NOT to top crapemyrtles followed by how I actually go about pruning mine each year
1. Pruning crapemyrtles late in the year decreases cold hardiness. Let’s not soon forget the freeze damage inflicted on many crapemyrtles in the past.
2. Topping crapemyrtles causes them to sucker more at the base leading to more work to remove the unwanted sprouts. The ultimate goal is to have a permanent number of trunks (odd numbers like 3, 5 or 7 look best) with no suckers and no more topping.
3. Hack jobs on crapemyrtles cost money. Crews don’t cut and haul crapemyrtle branches for free and the fuel used for the equipment isn’t cheap or environmentally friendly. I suspect crapemyrtle bark scale is spread tree to tree and neighborhood to neighborhood by pruning equipment and trailers as well.
4. Cutting and hauling crapemyrtles are loads of work. I’ve had shoulder surgery, two neck surgeries, back surgery, and four hip surgeries. I’m certainly not looking for things to bend over and pick up! I recently cut a crapemyrtle to remove and I’m still not finished picking up the limbs.
5. If your crapemyrtle grows too big for the space you have it in, then you have the wrong cultivar and should remove it entirely instead of chopping on it annually. Some are bushes and some are trees. They range in ultimate heights from 3-30 feet. Plant varieties accordingly and remove those entirely that don’t fit or are in too much shade.
6. Topping crapemyrtles produces a plethora of new shoots and narrow crotch angles for pesky crapemyrtle bark scale to hide and overwinter in. Crapemyrtle bark scale also likes to feed on new growth and callus tissue induced by pruning. I always see more bark scale on topped crapemyrtles than unpruned ones.
7. Crapemyrtles have some of the most architectural trunks and branching structure of any ornamental tree that we grow. A crapemyrtle never pruned will always be prettier than one that is maimed. The standard aesthetic rule of thumb is two-thirds upper branches and one-third lower trunks. Topping produces the opposite.
8. Cutting crapemyrtles back severely produces long sappy growth that flops and droops when they bloom. I actually see folks that top theirs and then stake them to hold them back up. Crazytown. It also delays the bloom time.
9. Topping crapemyrtles isn’t recommended by any expert or gardening publication in the world, with all agreeing that it’s bad for the tree and extremely unattractive.
10. If your crapemyrtle has been horribly scarred by “crape murder,” cut it to the ground in early spring and watch how fast it grows back. Wait one year then select the number of permanent trunks you want. Then listen to the Beatles and “let it be.”
If you insist on pruning them and want to turn perfect into perfection, here’s what I do.
- I first walk around the tree and do an initial physical and artistic evaluation.
- I use flagging tape to mark any branches that are in the way of lawnmowers, tractors, or my head! Previous damage to the bark often highlights these limbs. I then cut these off with a chainsaw or handsaw making sure not to leave any stubs that won’t heal over.
- Next, I cut out one of any two branches that are rubbing and damaging each other. I leave the one which is most important to the overall branching structure of the tree.
- I then cut out any dead branches that I can reach. It’s common for all trees to shade out and shed inner branches. It’s “prettier” of course if we speed it along by removing them before they slowly fall on their own.
- Next, I remove any limbs that don’t fit the overall shape of the tree or happen to be heading in an awkward direction. These types of branches are rare in crapemyrtles, but I take them out when I see them. Picture all the branches as a bouquet in a vase. Thin, straight water sprouts shooting up from inner branches should also be removed.
- The last thing is removing basal suckers as close to the ground or main trunk as you can. Leaving stubs will cause them to keep suckering. As long as you don’t top them or damage them with lawnmowers or string trimmers they will eventually heal over and stop suckering.
The goal when pruning crapemyrtles is for no one to notice that you pruned them! Each cultivar has a natural size and shape which should be maintained and encouraged for the life of the tree.