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Stop Pruning These Naturally Sculptured Plants
Article and Photography by Article and Photography by Linda B. Gay

The way crape myrtles can look in spring is a travesty (distorted representations of trees) and a tragedy (an event causing great suffering and distress) to the individual plants. What I am referring to is the way the trees get brutally whacked and chopped by loppers and saws and then loaded into a large trailer, adding to landfills. If the plants are too tall, pull them out and replace with shorter varieties, as crape myrtles rarely or never need pruning.

Crape myrtles are TREES and that means they grow TALL, anywhere from 20 to 40 feet in height. They have been lovingly referred to as the “Lilac of the South” (with no fragrance) with a very long bloom time in the summer. Crape myrtles have wonderful exfoliating bark in late spring/early summer. When I was a child, I loved to peel off the bark to reveal the beautiful, velvety, cinnamon-colored trunk. The leaves also provide great fall color, from yellow to orange to red, if the weather cooperates.

So here we have a plant that gives us an exceptionally long summer bloom period, great fall foliage (not many trees do that here) and a beautiful sculptured trunk when allowed to grow naturally. 

Two types of crape myrtles are most frequently planted here: Lagerstroemia indica and Lagerstroemia hybrid (indica x fauriei). The first species, L. indica, has small round leaves and is terribly susceptible to powdery mildew, which is a white powder that causes the leaves to curl up and distort, stops photosynthesis and occurs in spring and fall. Powdery mildew must be sprayed with several fungicide applications.

Or you can plant the U.S. National Arboretum hybrids, which are totally resistant to powdery mildew. One hybrid crape myrtle, Lagerstroemia indica x fauriei, was started by the late Donald Egolf of the national arboretum beginning in 1959. He initiated a research project to develop disease-resistance (powdery mildew), hardiness (because the fauriei species were more frost-tender that indica) rebloomers, true flower color and unique inheritable dark trunk colors. The hybrid crapes are easily distinguished as they have larger rectangle leaves, larger flowers and flower clusters and are totally resistant to powdery mildew. That means you never have to spray fungicide again!

Some of the National Arboretum hybrids you may be familiar with are:
• Muskogee, up to 30 feet tall, light lavender flowers and red-orange fall color
• Tuscarora, up to 20 feet tall, dark coral-pink flowers and red-orange fall color
• Natchez, up to 30 feet tall, white flowers and yellow to red-orange fall color
• Arapaho, up to 20-30 feet tall, red flowers and maroon-tinged leaves
• Fantasy, 25-40 feet tall, white flowers with a sweet fragrance and nectar for attracting bees

If you do not have the space for a 20- or 30-foot tree, try using one of the shrub or dwarf crape myrtle varieties.

• Chickasaw, 1- 3-foot-tall shrub with light lavender-pink flowers
• Chica, 2- to 4-foot-tall shrub with deep red flowers
• Pokomoke, 3- 5-foot-tall shrub, deep rose-pink flowers
• Hopi, 5- 10-foot tall shrub, light pink flowers
• Dynamite, 6- to 8-foot-tall dense shrub, true red flowers
• Acoma, 6- to 10-foot-tall semi-dwarf weeping habit with white flowers
• Catawba, 8- to 10-foot-tall dense shrub with violet-purple flowers

1. Do not plant in flowerbeds next to the house. Instead, use a tall variety in the middle of the yard to provide summer shade on the west side of the house.

2. Crape myrtles are either single trunk or multi-trunked. It can take a long time to turn a multi-trunk into a single trunk, so purchase a single trunk to begin with, if that is what you need.

3. Plant the hybrids with the large leaves in the spring and fall to avoid powdery mildew.

4. Crape myrtles need at least six hours of direct sun for long summer blooms.

5. Watch for crape myrtle “Asian Bark Scale.” It turns the trunks completely black and must be treated systematically and topically. Severe pruning seems to attract these sucking insects.

6. Pruning should only be done when trees are young by removing crossing and rubbing branches and dead wood. You could remove seed heads in the winter, but this is how all the abuse started because it was too time consuming to snip the tips and progressed into the crape murder we have come to recognize today. Note: If you have trees that have been chopped down to shoulder or waist height, remove them for they will never be beautiful again.

Finally, you be the teacher and help educate those holding the chain saws and pruners to stop the horrible disfiguring of our beautiful sculptured trees. Remember: No pruning is necessary if the trees have never been pruned.

Linda B. Gay is a horticulturist and gardener at The Arbor Gate garden and plant nursery, 15635 FM 2920, Tomball, 281-351-8851, .

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