The Budding Gardener

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Why Crape Myrtles Should Not Be Topped

By Michelle Thompson

Soon, across southern landscapes, we will see crapemyrtle trees reshaped with severe horizontal cuts of their branches called topping or “crape murder”.  This outdated habit still persists and leaves the repeatedly cut branch ends with permanent scars of unsightly bulges or knobby knuckles.  Many landscapers are happy to continue the practice and charge you for this unnecessary work.

As with all trees in our landscape, crapemyrtles do not need to be topped.  Topping the tree causes new growth at the base (called suckers) which then needs to be trimmed away.  Cutting crapemyrtles back severely, causes the tree to produce long thin weak growth that flops from the weight of the blooms and delays the bloom time.  Topping does not create more blooms, just stringy branches where the tree was cut and increases the chance of rot occurring.  The end result is an unhealthy and less attractive tree.

When properly maintaining crapemyrtles the goal (similar for other trees) is to provide good air circulation and sunlight penetration.  This helps prevent diseases, although now there are newer mildew resistant varieties available.  A good time to prune your crapemyrtle is mid to late winter.  Start your pruning process from the bottom of the plant and work your way up. Remove unwanted suckers which are those small spindly shoots at the base of the tree trunk. You want to have three to five main trunks that grow from the ground if pruning for a multi-stemmed shape.  Next remove inward growing branches, branches pointing toward the ground, crossing or rubbing branches, dead branches, stubs from improper pruning and broken limbs.  You want to show off the beautiful natural vase shape of the tree, so no excessive trimming is necessary. 

Other tree forms are the standard tree shape with one strong cane, often trained early from the grower, and works well with intermediate to tall trees that reach 20-25 feet at maturity.  Multi stemmed bush type shapes work well with shorter varieties, like the dwarf or semi-dwarf which grow to reach four to eight feet.

Many crapemyrtle trees outgrow their area because the mature size of the tree was not considered when planning for the site.  Selecting a tree variety with the right size and shape for your location is the first step in minimizing unnecessary trimming later on down the road when the tree starts to reach its mature size.  There are many cultivars of crapemyrtle, ranging in height from three feet to thirty feet. 

To prove the bad effects of topping crapemrtyles, the North Carolina Urban Forestry Council conducted a case study with photos showing the difference.  They selected two trees identical in size and topped one.  The photos comparing the growth of the two trees over time can be found at www.ncufc.org/uploads/TheTreeToppingStory-picsspeaklouder.pdf.  I’m sharing one picture of the study that shows the topped tree (left), did not perform as well as the tree kept natural (right), that was not topped.  Even after two years the topped tree couldn’t catch up.

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