Stop the (Crape) Murder! How To Properly Prune Crape Myrtles

Crape Myrtles are a staple in the South, and for good reason. You can find them sprinkled throughout Georgia mainly because of their gorgeous showy flowers and smooth trunks. In fact, their flowers are so beautiful, their name is inspired by flowy crepe fabric. Oasis President Kevin Paulen calls them “one of the most vibrant flowering trees out there, especially when they get plenty of sun.” Originally from Asia, they made their way over to the US by Frenchman Andre Michaux, when he brought them to South Carolina in 1786.

You would think that since this beautiful plant has been here for almost 300 years proper pruning of the Crape Myrtle would be common knowledge. Unfortunately, that is just not the case. The flowers themselves only make up a fraction of Crape Myrtles’ beauty. Shape and form also add to the elegance and grace of the plant. Yet pruning “gone bad” butchers the Crape Mrytle’s natural elegance. The main culprit is…. “Crape Murder”.

What is “Crape Murder?”

Crape Murder, also known as “topping,” is when you top or prune off the upmost parts of Crape Myrtles, transforming a beautiful tree with gracefully arching limbs into what looks like a disfigured group of sticks. So why would gardeners (and shockingly many landscapers) do this? For one, it’s easier and less time-consuming than pruning the tree properly. Secondly, some believe that it will create new blooms, but in fact the opposite is true. According to Ross Day, Vice President at Oasis, “if you don’t Crape Murder them, they will leaf out faster and have more blooms.”

Others do top off the Crape Mrytle because they fear the tree will grow too tall. Lastly, people are swayed by peer pressure. Since Crape Murder is such a common practice, people may see the butchered trees in their neighbors’ yards and think they need to do the same.

But when you commit Crape Murder, this is what you actually do to the tree:

  • Leave permanent scarring (it’s like cutting off someone’s fingers, it will never grow back the same way) 
  • Destroy the natural beauty of the tree
  • Encourage the growth of smaller, spindly branches that are too weak to support new blooms

The Proper Way to Prune Crape Myrtles:

Here are four tips that will help you correctly prune- not murder- your beautiful Crape Myrtles.

  1. Prune to Reduce Height:
    • Monitoring the height of your crape myrtle is essential to keeping you safe and preventing any property damage. Before you plant the tree, make sure you have enough space for it to grow. If you must reduce a crepe myrtle’s height, use hand pruners to shorten the topmost branches by 2–3 ft. in late winter. Be sure to cut back to a side branch or bud. For branches that are more than 2 in. thick, always cut back to the trunk.
  2. Thin out the Trunks:
    • It is very important to thin out the trunks on young trees, by cutting off excess branches. Be careful to leave around 3 to 7 permanent trunks. This is the only required pruning because the fewer trunks you have, the more the shape and smooth texture can be admired. A rule of thumb is, if a bird can fly easily through the trunks – the Crape Myrtle is pruned well! Additionally, remove any new suckers that grow from the ground or from the main trunks every spring. 
  3. Removing Seed Pods:
    • If the Crape Myrtle happens to be small, you can also remove the seed pods. This is purely for aesthetic reasons because removing the dried pods during the winter does not cause more to bloom during the summer. However, there is one benefit of removing dried pods; removing them during the summer promotes faster re-bloom.
  4. Use Sharpened Tools:
    • Make sure your pruning shears are sharpened before you prune your plants. The last thing you want to do is unintentionally damage your tree! Unsharpened tools can cause the following:
      • Rough cuts that tear the bark
      • Shredded wood
      • Wounds that are difficult for a tree or shrub to repair
      • Susceptibility to pests and disease

Crape Myrtles are graceful trees that can add a touch of beauty to any landscape. Their smooth bark and elegant shape, combined with their gorgeous flowing flowers are worth all your effort in care. Remember, respect its natural beauty – don’t maim this beautiful tree by committing Crape Murder.

One way to ensure this never happens is to give Oasis Landscapes & Irrigation a call at 770-609-1871 or contact us online. We will be sure to properly prune your gorgeous Crape Myrtles!