What Is Crape Murder?

Find tips on whether to prune or not to prune your crape myrtle.

Crape myrtles can be cut to the ground - and they will sprout right back out. Where do we draw the line?

Crape myrtles can be cut to the ground - and they will sprout right back out. Where do we draw the line?

First time I heard the term “crape murder” – for the unnecessary but widespread butchering of perfectly healthy crape myrtle trees – was from Steve Bender, senior garden editor for Southern Living magazine. 

Not trying to be contrary, but the truth is – and I am a trained arborist who taught the class in college – to prune or not to prune a crape myrtle is a matter of personal style, not a horticultural edict.

Pruning crapes into balls on sticks is called pollarding, which is an old method of producing uniform branches for weaving into fences; it is similar to coppicing, or cutting trees close to the ground every few years to produce uniform fence posts.

It falls somewhere in with pruning hedges – do we go with round balls, or sheared boxes? Doesn’t really matter to the plant.  In fact, here is a before and after shots of the same tree, pruned in winter (and no, I really don't personally think it looks good) and after, compact but in full bloom with no apparent damage.

Personal/Professional Opinion

It’s not my place to criticize – or applaud – a garden practice that really doesn’t matter much in any big pictures. Would a fashion writer belittle folks who pluck their eyebrows, only to paint them back on in a different part of their forehead? Would a dog lover condemn what is done to poodles?

Truth is, there’s really not a huge philosophical difference between cutting crapes back, and shaping plants through the ancient art of bonsai, or how every other garden in Japan has a shrub poodle-pruned into what they call niwaki (“floating clouds”). 

Sure, it looks kinda goofy, and some self-appointed tastemakers disapprove. But it mostly boils down to a matter of personal taste.Besides, I have photographed pruned crape myrtles in ancient Shinto gardens in Japan - who are we to criticize?

Fact of the Matter

From a plant physiology point of view, it doesn’t harm plants any more than does regular rose or hedge pruning, as long as old knobby growths are removed from time to time to be replaced by new ones. 

As my horticulturist friend Carol Reese from the University of Tennessee put it, “While topping your crape myrtle is not likely to kill it, eventually the result is a knotty looking tree that has masses of weakly attached new growth that can bend under the weight of the flowers, or even snap in wind.”

So remove the knobs from time to time.

Above is a well-pruned mature crape myrtle, with lower limbs thinned and the upper and side branches cut back just a little for a more compact yet still natural effect.

But the bottom line remains that this decorative practice of pollarding doesn't really harm crape myrtles. So if you really  don’t like the practice, simply don’t do it. But please stop picking on the many gardeners who simply like the look. 

Can't we all just get along?

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