CRAPE MYRTLE OR COAT RACK? ‘Butchering’ for blooms, by Larry Williams, UF/IFAS Extension Agent

You’ve probably seen crape myrtle trees pruned to look like a coat rack. Hopefully, you’re not guilty of doing this. The term “crape murder” was coined to describe this drastic topping of crape myrtles.

Properly selected and correctly placed crape myrtles need little pruning. A crape myrtle that requires routine pruning to force it to fit into a smaller space should be considered for replacement with a smaller-maturing cultivar. To avoid having to annually “butcher” a nice tree, choose a smaller maturing crape myrtle.

There are crape myrtle cultivars that grow only 2 to 3 feet in height, such as Pocomoke. There are semi-dwarf cultivars that grow to about 12 feet or less in height, such as Acoma. Intermediate crape myrtle cultivars, such as Osage, grow to 29 feet or less in height. But standard “tree form” cultivars, such as Natchez, grow greater than 20 feet in height.

Topping trees is a bad practice. It weakens a tree by removing food reserves stored in the now removed wood. It radically reduces the size of the canopy, decreasing the plant’s ability to produce food through photosynthesis. The large open cuts caused from topping invite wood-rotting organisms and ultimately decay. Topping results in dead stubs throughout the tree. Topping a crape myrtle forces the tree to produce unsightly root suckers. Ultimately topping results in an ugly, odd-looking, higher maintenance and short-lived crape myrtle.

Many people believe crape myrtles must be cut way back in order to produce an abundance of blooms. Flower clusters might be slightly larger on topped trees but topping usually delays flowering up to one month. And since the tree is smaller, it produces fewer flowers.

The long, weak shoots supporting large, heavy flower clusters on topped crape myrtles bend awkwardly and are more likely to break away from the plant.

When pruning crape myrtle trees, avoid cutting back or shortening branches much larger than the diameter of your finger, although cutting larger branches back to a side branch or to the trunk when needed is fine.

More information on crape myrtle selection and care is available online at http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/mg266 and at http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/ep399.

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