“‘Crape murder’ refers to the widespread practice of ‘topping off’ crape myrtles.”
The temperatures have dropped here in the Brazos Valley, and we can finally wear sweaters (well, most days at least)! It’s the perfect time of year to address a common pruning technique that affects our much-loved crape myrtles.
Here in Central Texas, we use crape myrtles everywhere! We love them for their vibrant, showy, blooms and beautiful tree-forms. ‘Crape murder’ refers to the widespread practice of ‘topping off’ crape myrtles. Often, this involves using a chainsaw to cut evenly across all the tree’s lower branches to remove the canopy. All that remains of the tree is a grouping of trunks sticking out of the ground. While this practice doesn’t directly kill the tree, it causes harm and should be avoided.
Horticulturists dislike ‘crape murder’ for many reasons. When you remove the healthy, mature branches of the canopy, the trunks are left exposed. Open cuts make the tree more susceptible to pests and diseases. Removing established branches promotes the growth of weak shoots, which branch from the cut site. These weak shoots aren’t strong enough to hold the weight of the abundant flower clusters, as a result, produce fewer blooms. This also weakens the tree and makes the branches more likely to snap during a storm. Additionally, ‘crape murder’ causes scarring, usually seen as big misshapen knots at the tops of the trunks. This type of scarring is unattractive and disrupts the beautiful smooth bark.
Why do so many people still practice ‘crape murder’? Many people believe that topping off their crape myrtle will promote blooming. When their canopy is removed, all the new growth is closer to eye level; so it gives the illusion of having more blooms. But as I mentioned earlier, the new branches are often too weak to withstand a lot of blooming.
Another reason people commit ‘crape murder’ is the overcrowded placement. When the tree becomes too crowded in a space, people tend to cut off the canopy in order to control its growth. This can be avoided by simply making sure there is enough room in the given location for the tree to reach its mature size.
Lastly, people observe their neighbors ‘topping off’ their crape myrtles and assume it is the proper way to do it. When everyone on the street has sheared the canopy off their crape myrtles, you may feel as if you are doing something wrong by leaving yours.
What are the alternatives to ‘crape murder’? The best way to promote the overall health of your crape myrtle is by using proper pruning techniques. Placement is also extremely important when choosing where to plant new crape myrtles; make sure the space accommodates the mature height and width of the tree.
We’ve talked about what not to do when pruning crape myrtles, so let’s talk a bit more about proper pruning techniques. One of the first things I like to do when pruning crape myrtles is to make sure there are 3-5 established trunks. Once your trunks are established, you can start pruning the branches up the trunks to give them a nice tree form. Once the tree is established you can start pruning the canopy.
When pruning the canopy the goal is to keep branches that are growing upward. Branches that are growing sideways or inward toward the center of the tree can be pruned. You can also prune any branches that are growing downward or are thin and weak. This allows the canopy to be much less crowded and provides uniformity by keeping all of the branches growing upward. Properly pruned crape myrtles provide beautiful, strong silhouettes against the winter landscape.