A Broken Record

A tree with no leaves Description automatically generated with medium confidence

The sun is setting on another horribly disfigured crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia species).
N. Jordan Franklin, ©2022 HGIC, Clemson Extension

When I was a child, my Mama would often say, I feel like a broken record! after reminding my brother and me several times of tasks we did not complete. As a parent, I now know firsthand the frustration she felt after repeatedly imploring us to turn off lights, close doors, pick up clothes, and so on and on and on

If there is an issue on which horticulturists most feel like a broken record, it is likely the annual pleading for people not to top their crape myrtles (Lagerstroemia species), also known as crape murder. Topping crape myrtles is no new phenomenon. Twenty-five years ago, I studied horticulture at Clemson, where they taught me that topping crape myrtles is a crime. My fellow horticulturists and I have been spreading the message for at least that long.

Topping is an extreme pruning practice that one might compare to amputating a person’s arms. Just as a person’s recovery from such a traumatic procedure would be slow, physically taxing, and require rest and proper nutrition, trees experience similar stresses. For more information on why topping is bad for trees, visit this Why Topping Hurts Trees publication from the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA).

Furthermore, pruning crape myrtles does not improve the plants’ health or increase flowering. The only type of pruning crape myrtles, or trees in general, need is structural pruning, only when necessary. Structural pruning consists of selectively thinning branches for good airflow, eliminating codominant leaders, eliminating rubbing or crossing branches, and removing dead, damaged, or diseased wood. Most structural pruning is done early in the tree’s life to reduce future problems. For more information about tree pruning, visit HGIC 1009, Crape Myrtle Pruning, HGIC 1003, Principles & Practices for Pruning Trees, and The Art and Science of Pruning.

I don’t know what makes people commit crimes against poor crape myrtles. I mean, we don’t top oaks, maples, dogwoods, or other trees with impunity. I suspect a copycat crime is part of the problem. Unknowing property owners see their neighbors’ horribly disfigured trees and reason that it must be the thing to do. So, here I am, sounding like a broken record, sharing the good news that you DO NOT need to prune your crape myrtles.

Crape myrtles are versatile ornamental plants. The numerous cultivars provide plants from 3-feet-tall shrubs to 50-feet-tall trees, with all sizes and flower colors in-between. Visit HGIC 1023, Crape Myrtle Varieties, for a listing of cultivars. When the right plant is planted in the right place, there is rarely a reason to prune it.

If this document didn’t answer your questions, please contact HGIC at hgic@clemson.edu or 1-888-656-9988.

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