Don't commit crape murder
By Tracey Payton Miller
OSU Horticulture Educator
Colorful crape myrtles scream southern living. They are tough as nails, bloom all summer long, have peeling bark, beautiful form, and winter interest. Northern latitudes are extremely jealous of our ability to grow these gems. So why do we take them for granted and hack them to pieces? The practice of chopping off the tops of crape myrtles has become commonplace. Many people believe that it is required to promote flowering. Some prune because they didn't realize how big the plant would get. Others see their neighbors or local businesses doing it and feel the need to follow suit.
Nothing hurts my heart more than seeing beautiful, exfoliating, mature crape myrtle limbs chopped in half. Topping crape myrtles is absolutely unnecessary. When you remove the top of a tree of any kind, you remove all the photosynthetic capacity of that plant. This means major stress. Luckily, crape myrtles are resilient, so they usually bounce back. However, the unsightly "knuckles" formed from years of topping will cease to grow at a certain point. Then what? Cut the entire limb back to the ground because that stem is done, dead.
Instead of topping, develop the tree shape of the plant. Do this by selecting only the healthiest limbs growing from ground level. As the tree matures, remove growing branches ("limb-up") one-third to halfway up the height of the plant. Over time, remove branches that are dead, crossing, or rubbing against each other and shoots growing into the center of the canopy. As the crape myrtle grows taller, remove lower branches as needed. Pull any tender sprouts that may occur at ground level to retain the tree shape. Never remove more than one-third of the overall growth in a season. Crape myrtles do not require heavy pruning to promote blooms. Flowers are produced on new growth, so as long as you don't cut off the new leaves you will have plenty of blooms. Pruning in the dead of winter will stimulate vigorous new growth in the spring.
There have been many advances made to the standard crape myrtle over the years. Various sizes, colors, and habits have been developed, making it easy to choose the right one for your area. There are miniatures (1' to 2'), small dwarf (2' to 4'), dwarf (4' to 8'), semi-dwarf (8' to 15'), and small tree (15' to 25' plus) forms.
Consider new plant selections that require minimal pruning while allowing the plant to display its graceful beauty. Crape myrtles that mature between 8 and 15 feet include 'Pink Velour' (hot pink), 'Dynamite' (red), 'Burgundy Cotton' (white, burgundy foliage), 'Natchez' (white), 'Comanche' (dark pink), 'Rhapsody in Pink' (light pink, burgundy foliage), and 'Twilight' (lavender). Compact crape myrtles between 1 and 4 feet include, 'Chickasaw' (pink), 'Rosy Carpet' (rose), 'Pocomoke' (red), 'New Orleans' (weeping, purple), and 'Tightwad Red' (light red). The crape myrtle varieties listed above are only a handful of those available.
Some of you may be dealing with large, old crape myrtles that you had nothing to do with planting. To create clearance, limb-up old plants that have lower limbs interfering with people or cars. To clear an obstructed window or door, limb-up plants above the roofline of a single story home. If one of the trunks is leaning too close to a building, eliminate it. If you recently planted a large crape myrtle variety in a spot where you want a compact plant, dig it up if it isn't too late. Then, plant a new dwarf cultivar that will require little or no maintenance. Topping should only be considered as a last resort.