Gardeners' Dirt: Choose to not be guilty of crepe 'murder'
By Barbara Hanning - Victoria County Master GardenerEdited by Charla Borchers Leon
Nov. 14, 2013 at 5:14 a.m.
Crepe murder, eek. No, I do not mean death by French pancake. Rather, it is unkindly pruning (beheading) of the limbs of the crepe myrtle.
Crepe (or crape) myrtles, spelled either way, are scientifically known as Lagerstroemia and have always been my favorite blooming perennial shrub. "Crepe murder" is a term coined to describe the outcome of a pruning method used by some to reduce the height of their shrub or tree.
There should be little pruning required when Lagerstroemia are placed properly, but the best time to do so is in early spring. If excessively pruned back to what looks more like a stump, the result is the growth of many small diameter branches emanating from a single trunk.
These weak branches produce large blossom heads, but the branches are likely unable to support the blooms, which then dangle upside down.
You will see numerous Lagerstroemia all over our local area. Who wouldn't love an ornamental flowering perennial that is easy to care for and can actually thrive in our hot and humid climate, blooming best in full sun? They can be a tall graceful branching form or a short shrub.
They flower profusely in white, pink, red and lavender hues over a long period in spring and summer and can repeat blooms. In the fall, some will offer color in the landscape as leaves turn red (a rare thing in our climate), and in winter, the graceful branches that have shed their bark and retained their dark seedpods continue to offer visual interest.
Murder prevention by choosing your crepe myrtle
Whether you are landscaping a new area or adding these beauties to an established yard, there are critical choices to make. Mature size is the first major consideration. Lagerstroemia can mature at a height of 1 foot all the way up to 20 feet or more.
You will want your ornamental to fit the space you provide for it. It should be able to reach mature height and spread without encroaching on overhead lines, the neighbors' yards or the sidewalks as examples. Also, in any variety, a single-trunked specimen will always mature taller than a multi-trunked plant. Choose wisely at the nursery.
Another consideration is bloom color. That scrumptious hot pink bloom on the perfect-sized plant might not look so good when paired with your brick-red home. There are numerous other hues from which to choose.
A critical consideration is mildew resistance. The older varieties of crepe myrtle were more susceptible to powdery mildew, but since the development of the resistant plants, the latter would be a better choice for our environment, although even these, too, can succumb if sited in a "close" area with little air movement, like in an enclosed back yard.
Care to be carefree
Chosen carefully, your crepe myrtle can be almost carefree. It doesn't need fertilization, and if you fertilize for faster growth, you will do so at the expense of blooms. Water weekly when initially planted but once established it is tolerant of dry periods.
Be very careful in using weed killers around your crepe myrtle. Because they shed their bark, they don't have the protection other trees do, and they can absorb weed killers just like weeds or grass do with the same result.
Prune at minimum
If you have chosen, thoughtfully there will be little necessary pruning. Cut out dead wood at any time of year. In early spring just prior to new growth, prune out overlapping limbs and those that are growing into the center of the plant to enhance air circulation.
They bloom on new growth, so removing seed pods at this time of year will not promote more blooms. Although if you can reach them easily, you may want to remove developing pods immediately after the first flush of blooms, as this can promote a second period of smaller blooms. You may also remove sprouts at the base.
Is murder a crime?
Some of us inherited our crepe myrtles when we moved into our homes. They were not chosen for their size, and so they outgrew their provided space. In an attempt to make them fit, they are cut back and "murdered" as described.
Some of us were told more blooms would be produced by these "topped" ornamentals. If you like the "lollipop" effect, top your plant.
I prefer to always choose a thoughtfully selected, freely growing, graceful and elegant crepe myrtle.
The Gardeners' Dirt is written by members of the Victoria County Master Gardener Association, an educational outreach of Texas AgriLife Extension - Victoria County. Mail your questions in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, TX 77901; or firstname.lastname@example.org, or comment on this column at VictoriaAdvocate.com.