Photo Credit - Randy Lemmon

I’ve often playfully hinted over the last 20 years that I might be able to retire from GardenLine when the majority of Houstonians stop the annual crape myrtle massacre. 

Alas, I took a trip to Cypress last Monday for an on-site consultation, and I’m sadly convinced we are years away from that dream becoming a reality. Turning into my client’s subdivision, I got to see one example after another of murder on a single street. 

I hope you’ll share this article with whomever takes care of your pruning. And if it’s a landscape crew, they just happen to be the biggest of all perpetrators of this heinous practice. Have them read this, and maybe you can help stop the massacre.

First, a little background on the crape myrtle tree, Lagerstroemia indica (sometimes written as crapemyrtle in many southern gardening books): The “lilac of the South” is a native of China and the most popular flowering tree in the southern U.S. Introduced to South Carolina around 1786 by Frenchman Andre Michaux, it’s perhaps the most beautifully branching flowering tree in the world. But for a mysterious reason I haven’t quite figured out, the majority of “gardeners” and landscape crews in Texas have made a horrid ritual of butchering them every year.

Photo Credit: Getty Images
 My gardening expert buddy, Greg Grant, wrote this: I know of NO educated horticulturist or arborist that endorses the practice of topping crape myrtles or any ornamental trees for that matter. Go ahead. Pick up the phone. Call Randy! (Okay, he didn’t use my name, but he did mention many vaunted horticultural experts.) Call the National Arboretum! You WILL NOT find any plant expert that will condone or recommend this practice. Then why do we do it? Actually I have several theories. But I’m not going to share any of them with you for fear that you might somehow feel justified in your arboreal disfigurement.

Greg went on to say, I will tell you why not to, however. First of all, it leaves horrible scars and wounds that last forever. That’s correct, FOREVER. I can show you exactly where any crapemyrtle on earth was topped. It’s a “teenage tattoo” that can never be removed. It also makes a profusion of smaller branches resulting in a lack of proportion. All trees have a characteristic shape. It just so happens that crapemyrtles have one of the most beautiful. Topping does create larger blooms, though fewer of them. Unfortunately these larger blooms on new shoots have a tendency to flop over and droop after summer rains (remember when it used to rain in the summer?). And finally, it’s downright ugly.

I also remember one of my horticultural mentors at Texas A&M, Dr. Doug Welsh, pointing out the obvious – the crape myrtle is, by definition, a tree, and we don’t cut any other tree back to the same place every year. That even applies to “ornamental” trees such as dogwoods, redbuds and Japanese maples. Look at it this way: When you over-prune crapes, you’re undoing what Mother Nature perfected.

This is where Greg, Doug and I all agree … why do crape murderers pick out the prettiest of all the flowering trees to maim? 

This practice may look appropriate behind the chain link fence of some industrial business park, but I can assure you it is not correct in any landscape intended to be admired.  Some of the most beautiful homes in Texas are now marred by embarrassing crapes, in my opinion.

If you go to South Carolina or Alabama, you won’t find this practice, because folks there had ‘em first, and they figured out long ago how to care for them. Texas needs to do some serious catching up. 

I’m not saying they should never be pruned, because a little nipping and tucking here and there is always needed. And thinning out too many trunks to leave just 3-7 is always required. In fact, the fewer trunks, the more these trees can be admired for their shape and smooth texture. Once a year, you can prune all the suckers coming out from the bases of the main trunks. And if you want to remove last year’s bloom seeds, that’s always acceptable. But c’mon folks … enough with pruning back to the same spot every year. That’s happening way too much in Texas. 

And before you complain, “But, Randy, they are rubbing on the house, getting too tall, and hitting the roof!” Well, that means they weren’t planted in the right place. You don’t plant oaks or maples at the corner of a house, right? The crape myrtle is a tree, too – not an ornamental shrub. Remember, they come in different sizes, and dwarf and miniature varieties can be useful in some spots.

So how do you prune ‘em? Well, all I ask is that you avoid pruning for one full year. If you’ve already participated in the massacre, don’t prune ‘em again for three years! Yes, I said THREE! If you’re committed to pruning correctly for the future, your homework assignment is to check out a great article and video from The Good Earth Garden Center.

I’ve issued this invitation for years, but I recently realized it’s been more than nine since I’ve done a rewrite of this diatribe. So, I’m laying it out here again. If you want to call the radio show this weekend and defend this practice as acceptable, bring it on!