Crape Murder: What is it, and why do people do it?
Crape Murder is the act of severely pruning the tops of crape myrtles. The reason for this senseless act, are the misguided notions that Topping increases the amount of new growth and blooms. The truth is Topping a crape myrtle of its canopy creates a host of problems for the tree such as reduced photosynthesis, sunburn, and overall unsightliness.
Reduced Photosynthesis creates difficulty for trees to intake nutrients, this in turn leads to weakness and starvation due to the crape myrtle struggling to survive by attempting to propogate new leaves and limbs quickly. To add to the dilemma , the open cuts act like slow healing wounds, thus increasing susceptibility to diseases and insects. The cuts can also harbor dead material that become permanently trapped once the tree heals. This can cause weak limbs to sprout around the wounded areas. Not only are the limbs unsightly and poorly attached to the stubs, but they grow quick as the tree attempts to replace its leaf canopy. In essence the attempt to increase blooms backfires, as the tree regains much of its original height, but with weaker branches that pose more danger than the original growth.
The Topped crape myrtle and any plants residing underneath it are exposed to full sun, and while a healthy crape myrtle is quite sun-tolerant this does not apply to a Topped one. On the contrary sudden exposure of previously shaded bark may damage underlying tissue. If a tree provided cover for shade-loving plants such as azaleas, those plants may become damaged or destroyed by sudden exposure to direct sunlight.
While the first two factors mentioned are more than valid reasons to forgo Topping crape myrtles, the third factor boils down to lack of aesthetics. Simply put Topping destroys the natural beauty of trees. It leaves them mangled and struggling, instead of increasing the beauty of the landscape. For people who value plants and nature, watching a mutilated tree suffer is painful.
Repairing the Damage and Correct Pruning
There are two options for saving a “murdered” crape myrtle. The first method is to choose the strongest two or three sprouts from each stub, and remove other sprouts. This will encourage remaining sprouts to become stronger, and the canopy of the tree to be airier. If you follow this procedure for a couple of seasons, then the tree will most likely improve in health and appearance.
The second–and more drastic–technique is to cut the tree back to within one to two inches of the ground while the tree is dormant. After two to three weeks of growth in late spring, select three to five vigorous new shoots on each trunk, and remove extras. Remove new shoots that emerge later. Within three to five years, you will have a natural-looking crape myrtle.
Correct Pruning of Crape Myrtles
The goal of pruning crape myrtle is to develop a vase-like shape.
It is ideal to remove:
- crossing branches
- broken branches
- extra trunks
- suckers (rob the tree of water and nutrients)
- branches growing towards the center of the tree
- dead limbs
- All side branches up to 4 feet from the ground. (when removing lower branches is to remove the lower 1/3, and leave the upper 2/3 of the branches)
Crape myrtles should be pruned in winter, and as the trees mature, they should require less pruning.
Check out the short video below for a little more guidance on this subject. You can find more information at this link https://piedmontmastergardeners.org/article/how-to-prune-crape-myrtles/.