Pruning Crape Myrtles

by Elmer Krehbiel, Master Gardener
February 4, 2004

Sure, you can prune crape myrtle shrubs when they are within reach the wood is easy to cut and this is the dormant season. However, pruning injures all plants either temporarily as sap is lost, or permanently as they become deformed.

General Pruning Guidelines

Flowers develop on new growth, and pruning is not required for crape myrtle plants to grow. However, there are special situations in which pruning can really help:

  • To remove the less desirable of a pair of rubbing branches
  • To remove damaged or dead wood at any time
  • To remove branches that grow inward toward the plants center
  • To and to develop a better shape.

And if you prefer the tree varieties of crape myrtle, well, those suckers simply have to be pruned.

Some gardeners are partial to the small-bushy crape myrtle shrubs. Two of my Southern shrub/tree books suggest the entire crape myrtle plant may be pruned nearly to the ground each dormant season. A large nodule will form and many stems will grow to about two feet tall, with a profusion of flowers. Five years ago, I pruned down a crape myrtle that developed 20 stems with flowers.

If you feel compelled to prune something during the dormant season, all of the branches smaller than a pencil could be cut off just above an outward pointing bud. During the summer, you can prune the seedpods.

If soil is moist and fertile, flowers should develop without any pruning of crape myrtle shrubs.

Topping and Crape-Murdering

Crape-murdering is a term in the U.S. for the process of pruning the trunks and/or branches thicker than a pencil. A nodule will form as the cut heals, then numerous small weak twigs will grow out from the cut. The nodule will be a permanent deformity. If the nodule is pruned, a larger one will form. The European pollard method of pruning is to cut off large trunks of shrubs and/or trees, then prune all of the twigs each year. Both tactics ruin the natural shape of the plants.

To top a crape myrtle is to cut of the top of the plants, so that they are shorter and flat on top. This also ruins the natural shape of the shrubs, causes nodules to form, and makes more basal suckers form and flower heads fall over.

If you prune a limb, the cut should be on the outside of the collar and not flush with the trunk.

Pruning a plant is analogous to a person getting scratched, and the scratch heals. But a cut becomes a permanent scar, and amputation causes deformity.

Colonist imported tall crape myrtle varieties for their landscapes. During the last century, some small, medium, and large mature size varieties were developed. When planting a landscape, be sure to select the most suitable size and flower/bark color varieties of crape myrtle.

More on Crape Myrtles

Dr. Elmer Krehbiel is the former President of Keep Brazos Beautiful. See his column in The Eagle.