Crape Myrtles: A Misunderstood Southern Standard
By Pamela A. Keene | Photography by Gary Bachman, Shaun Broderick and Pamela A. Keene
Less pruning and smart garden placement are all crape myrtles need to produce gorgeous spring and summer color.
Crape myrtles seem to survive no matter how they’re treated. The graceful shrubs and trees, known for their lush summer blossoms in colors ranging from pure white to deep burgundy, delicate pink to grape purple, provide several months of color across the South.
However, these durable plants often suffer a condition called “crape murder” in early spring.
“People somehow have the idea that you have to heavily prune back crape myrtles — like it’s a requirement, but that’s simply not the case,” says Shaun Broderick, assistant research and Extension professor at Mississippi State University. “Typically, pruning is done to remove unhealthy growth, to modify the size of a plant, or to stimulate its growth. But in the case of crapes, it’s better to pick a crape myrtle that will grow the right size and plant it in the right place, rather than butchering up a beautiful tree that was planted in the wrong spot to begin with. Consumers should be able to find an appropriate crape for their available space without needing to prune them back.”
Crape murder takes place when people severely prune back their crapes — usually by 40 percent or more. Often the tree’s trunks are cut off just a few feet from the ground, resulting in the mutilation of their beautiful branch architecture and the formation of ugly knuckle-like growth.
“The trees usually survive, so perhaps ‘murder’ is too strong of a word to use,” Broderick says. “My colleague Gary Bachman prefers the phrase ‘myrtilation’ to describe the effects of over-pruning. The new growth is much weaker, overcrowded, and more prone to damage and breaking during the strong summer storms that form in the Gulf Coast.”
Proper pruning occurs in late winter or early spring and should be done to remove dead or crossing branches back to the trunk and remove suckers that form at the base. You can remove the seed heads too, but this is not necessary.
“If you must prune a crape myrtle, avoid cutting off anything wider than your finger,” he says. “When you cut larger limbs or the trunk, you’re unnecessarily stressing the plant and are more likely to promote fast, weak growth.”
Hybridization over the past 20-to-30 years has resulted in various height crape myrtles that reach a variety of sizes at maturity, from dwarfs that grow 2-to-3 feet tall to trees that can tower up to 25 feet.
“Before you decide to include crape myrtles in your landscape, determine where you are going to plant them,” he says. “The larger varieties can be used as landscape anchors on the corners of your home but be mindful of how close to the house you plant them. Give them plenty of room to mature.”
Use a grouping of the taller tree forms as a focal point in a flower garden or plant several dwarf crape shrubs that will remain small and mounded to accent space near a sitting area or patio.
“One of the most impressive uses I’ve seen is lining a driveway with tall, graceful crapes that are all the same cultivar,” Broderick says.
Certain varieties offer three-season interest: summer blooms, foliage that turns red or scarlet in the fall, and exfoliating bark that stands out in the winter. Others are known for their stunning colors, graceful weeping branches or distinct upright growth.
Some of the more popular cultivars include the stately, white-flowering Natchez; Muskogee with its light lavender flowers and long bloom season; the semi-dwarf Tonto with deep-red blossoms; and Sioux, named a Mississippi Medallion plant in 1999 with vivid pink flowers.
Broderick suggests that people purchase their crape myrtles in person if possible, rather than online. “Examine the plant to make sure it’s healthy and pest-free. Ask the grower to confirm the mature size,” he says. “That way, you’ll be more knowledgeable about choosing the right location. The size printed on the tag may not always be accurate and may underestimate its mature size.”
Crape myrtles require full sun to flourish, and they need to be planted in well-drained soil. Once planted, they should be watered deeply about once a week until they are established. When the weather is dry, you may need to supply them with some supplemental water during the hot summer months. They’re adaptable to a wide range of soils and need little more than a light application of slow-release fertilizer or compost in the spring.
“Crapes may be prone to putting out suckers from the base of the plant, which can make it look messy,” he says. “These should be cut back to the ground regularly. They detract from the attractive bark and can also divert energy from the main plant; so, if you want better blooms, keep them trimmed. Young crapes usually sucker more than established ones. Take the opportunity while they are young to select three-to-five main stems that will serve as the main trunks. Remove the rest by cutting them off at the ground.”
Crape myrtles originated in China but they have become a staple in Southern landscapes. To maintain these beautiful plants, give thought to their care.
“Think before you prune a crape myrtle,” Broderick says. “We would never do this to other multi-trunked trees like a river birch, eastern redbud, dogwood, or Japanese magnolia, so why is it done regularly to crape myrtles? It’s a strange horticultural ritual that’s truly unnecessary.”