Master Gardeners – Crepe Myrtles: Stop murdering and start pruning

Published 12:01 am Saturday, January 22, 2022

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By John Green

Certified Texas Master Gardener

Spring is drawing near fellow gardeners and with it comes a host of garden tasks.  One of my personal favorite gardening tasks in spring is small tree and shrub pruning. There is one small, multi-trunked tree (or large shrub) which comes to mind, where simply too many fellow gardeners succumb to the practice of crepe myrtle butchery.  It is more commonly known as crepe myrtle “murder.” In 1997, a Southern Living Magazine article referred to the late fall and winter practice of severely cutting crape myrtles down to stubs as “crepe myrtle murder”.  The coined phrase remains in use today, unfortunately as does the practice.

Many of you know exactly of what I’m speaking. Drive around in any of our towns and neighborhoods within the golden triangle and the effects of this unfortunate type of cutting back (pruning) is evident everywhere.  Some gardeners and landscapers believe severely pruning or cutting back crepe myrtles to a few shorter trunks quick and easy work and is a good way to reduce its size or force them to “fit” into a small garden area. Crepe myrtles are trees not small shrubs and should not be forced into being something they cannot be nor quickly topped using a chainsaw.

Pruning crepe myrtles using a chainsaw and removing all top growth might initially seem the fastest and best path for us to take, as it most definitely speeds up the pruning process.  At what cost to the tree?  Note the fastest pruning method is NEVER going to be the best pruning method.  Butchering crepe myrtles’ trunks and cutting their trunks to the same height or length forces the tree to grow from where the pruning occurred, the area where the trunks were cut.  Employing this “murderous” technique year-after-year, the tree will form mangled knots diminishing its beauty for many years.  Further by utilizing this quick pruning method can also cause injury to the tree, weakening the multiple and damaging limbs, possibly even shortening the trees’ life.  Simply remember crepe myrtle “murder” is harmful to the tree’s aesthetic diminishing its beauty making them appear unattractive with unsightly knots and having black fungus growing on the knots after a few years. Slender, weak branches will grow from cut areas which can’t support the weight of flowers and that will break with wind gusts. The knots formed grossly detract from what should be a large, graceful, billowy, vase-shaped tree structure lending a profusion of blooms for spring and summer months.

The following tips will be your guide to prune Crepe Myrtles:

  • The best time to prune is now (Winter)
  • Start by removing shoots from around the base of the tree (called suckers)
  • Remove dead and crossed branches (branches which are rubbing against each other)
  • Misaligned branches (branches that are incongruous with trees’ vase shaped form)
  • Remove branches growing inward towards the center (maintain vase-like structure and circulation
  • Never leave partial branches, cut branches back to the trunk

 Fun fact: Did you know the spelling of crepe myrtle changes depending upon your geographic location?  Crepe myrtle is the most accepted “Southern” spelling but North of some unspecified crepe-myrtle line, it changes and becomes crape myrtle.

 For more information or to have your gardening questions answered by Orange County Texas Master Gardeners: Website: Facebook: Orange County Texas Master Gardeners Association Helpline: (409) 882-7010 Email: