Decorating Your Decapitated Crape Myrtle This Holiday Season: An Illustrated Guide

‘Tis the season for making boxwood wreaths, garlands of fresh pine, and of course donning the mangled remains of your professionally landscaped front yard with holiday fairy lights and other whimsical decor.

Are you a traditionalist?  Why not adorn the hacked-off stubs of your once majestic crape myrtle with strings of white lights?  Really put a lot of them on there and wrap them tightly (think: binding severed limbs with tournequets) then sit back and enjoy the show.  Once the sun sets, those twinkly lights will really set off the freakishly stubby quality of your tree, and admiring neighbors will understand that you are a homeowner who is definitely in charge of his landscape, by god!  Why, you have the power to transform a beautiful vase-shaped tree into a ridiculous parody of itself!

Perhaps your tastes run a bit bolder.  Perhaps you really like to draw your neighbors’ attention to the open wounds of your landscape.   Try festooning your butchered crape myrtle with giant white snowflakes this year!  Be sure to tie them up right where the trunks have been sawn off so that the viewer’s eye is led to the cruelest focal point.

And lest you have any shred of doubt that your crape myrtle might not grow back properly ever again, that perhaps you should have said something to that nice gentleman with the chainsaw, this photo will set your mind at ease:

What?  You say those little tiny shoots look “totally freakin’ ridiculous”?  And you wonder if they might be much weaker than unpruned branches and perhaps not hold up under loads of snow and ice?

Maybe.  But you’ve got to be tough with these trees.  You’ve got to show them who’s boss!  So what if there’s no logical reason to hack off the tops of crape myrtles, what with all the incredible variety of smaller cultivars on the market these days.  That’s not the point.  If you let your crapes grow naturally, next thing you know you might start telling your landscaping crew to stop edging your lawn with the string trimmer every week, or — God forbid — to stop fertilizing your lawn and just leave the grass clippings sometimes.  And then where would we be? 

It’s a slippery slope, folks.

Merry Christmas!

43 thoughts on “Decorating Your Decapitated Crape Myrtle This Holiday Season: An Illustrated Guide

  1. Thank heavens I am an uneducated Yankee and leave my crepe myrtles in peace. Kind of a Montessori attitude.
    By the way, it that last one ‘Lipan’? Does it have a good rep? Don’t know too much about it, but I wanted the lighter bark. I’d be pushing the zone, but I’ve had ‘Natchez’ for almost 20 years here in zone 6b and it has never had any problems.

    • ‘Natchez’, ‘Lipan’, and a bunch of other Indian tribes were developed by the National Arboretum fromwhat ever stock survived an extremely cold winter in DC . They have a wonderful trial collection on the grounds.
      Dirr has a complete listing. ‘Natchez’ is white flowered, cinnamon barked and has survived -10 here in NJ. ‘Lipan’ is lavender flowered and white barked, although zone 7. I’m thinking of chancing it.

      • I was aware of arboretum’s work with crape myrtles, but didn’t realize they were all from cold hardy stock.

        I actually have a poster up in my guest bedroom of all the crape myrtles introduced by the Nat’l arboretum. How big a dork am I?

        • Some of those posters are pretty lick-worthy. I fell in love with Prunus ‘Dream Catcher’ on one of them – then had to do some serious detective work to locate a current source!
          Hint: Chanticleer, in an obscure section of its web site, has the name and source of all the plants in its collection. How cool is that?

  2. Those poor trees! Why on earth would anyone cut them back like that? I couldn’t even recognize them from the crape myrtles we had on our street where I grew up in Los Angeles. No one ever trimmed those, but many a tacky Christmas light adorned them around this time of year when it was 75 degrees with no rain in sight.

    Perhaps the people who trimmed these trees so badly could benefit from having a Sasquatch lawn ornament or some flowerpots people. Oh wait, they probably already do.

    Thanks for laugh, Mary. I really enjoy reading your posts.

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  4. It is a shame that this noble southern favorite has to endure what Neil Sperry calls ‘crapemurder’.
    Proper pruning really adds to the attractivenes (and health!) of these great specimens. If maintaining a size is important, please consider using dwarf (3-4′), semi-dwarf (8-12′) or even miniature weeping crapes (18”-2′). They come in all colors, too!

    By the way, for a great display, I can suggest going to McKinney Texas as they are actively trying to estabilish their entire town as the ‘Crapemyrtle Capital”. They have are completing a spectacular park with every imaginable variety, even the ones used for lumber. Kudos to all the true crapemyrtle lovers that do so much to enhance our lives with colors and textures of this most remarkable of plants!

  5. Oh, if anybody gets the chainsaw, it’ll be the people who try to coppice my crepe myrtles. (Among other things, the twits who cap them like this miss out on seeing the colors when leaves are still on the tree by first frost. Several varieties have absolutely stunning royal purple autumn coloration…if you leave them alone.)

    • Mary, to be honest, it’s pure ignorance in most cases. I’m sure that a lot of individuals do it because they think they can turn one into bonsai. Some may do so because their spouses won’t let them pull the wings off houseflies any more. The overwhelming majority, though, do it because they don’t know any better, and they see neighbors doing it out of similar ignorance and figure “I guess this is what you’re supposed to do.” Never mind that you end up with a healthier and stronger tree with proper pruning alternated with benign neglect.

      As a side story, I used to live in a townhouse in North Dallas that had a big crepe myrtle and two rose bushes out in front, along the main road. While I lived there, I did a little bit of preventative pruning on both myrtle and roses, but otherwise left them alone. We were hit with what was at the time a record snowfall at the beginning of 2010, and all three came out without issue. In fact, I watched as half of the crepe myrtle bent to the ground under the weight of a foot of snow, and watched as it bounced back upon the thaw. We moved that year, and the owners of the townhouse went to town. They severely cut back the roses, and coppiced the crepe myrtle. The roses burned off in the record drought this summer, but the newly murderized myrtle didn’t survive our big freeze last February. And so it goes.

      • So it goes…nice Kurt Vonnegut reference. :o) You’re right that people just assume that’s what they’re supposed to do…but I’m sure that landscape maintenance companies also suggest it to many homeowners, and the landscapers should know better! I know I’m preaching to the choir about pruning crape myrtles, since the people who read my blog are already gardeners. That’s why I wrote the piece satirically, to give it a little something extra.

    • In addition people do it because it can produce more blooms. Because crapes flower on new wood, one can cut them back AND still have blooms. I have heard many people say that a “landscaper” told them the trees needed to be cut back. 20 years ago landscapers did often say this, but the tide among professionals changed a while back (at least here in NC). As the pros and municipalities stop doing it homeowners will notice and might stop committing crape murder.

      I think too, that with few older cultivars of crapes being small sized, people did try to control the size by butchering the plants. But that’s no excuse any longer. There’s a crape to fit nearly every space and no reason to destroy its lovely architecture.

      By the way, one of my neighbors who cut their tree have a lot of shade (as my 30 year old neighborhood has developed). The poor tree hardly blooms and sometimes gets powdery mildew. It’s time to take that plant out.

      Mary, I love your blog. What a great attitude!

      • Thank you, Lynn! I suppose you’re right about the increased blooming, and I think cutting plants back severely is a legitimate practice for creating more blooms….just not for the crape myrtle. Because, as you pointed out, they have such great architecture and often, lovely bark. So many people see flowers as the end-all be-all of gardening, but the crape myrtle is truly a four season tree and basically pruning them this way kills three out of four of the seasons! (imho)

  6. I agree it’s most likely ignorance. My neighbors chopped off half their crape myrtle this spring because they said they wanted the blossoms to be more at eye level, which they were in a freakish kind of way. Also, the snow storms last winter snapped one of the branches and they were cutting the shrub back so as to prevent future breakages. They just didn’t know that the new growth would be weaker and thus more likely to break.

  7. (Got here via Paul Riddell) I’ve never seen anyone do that to a crepe myrtle. What madness is that? I have 3 gorgeous crepes in the back yard, and I tell ya, I’ve got mulch pile that I think might be ready for bodies, were someone to come near my trees. What an insane thing to do.

    I see people do that to their roses every year too, and I’ve never figured out why. Then again, I raise killer roses of evil death, and I’m pretty sure they’d retaliate were I to go near them with loppers. It’s a happy compromise, neither of us kills the other one.

    Although, to be fair, were I left to my own devices, I would turn my couple of acres into a jungle with free ranging wildlife; like bunnies and squirrels and little loud whooping people.

    • Ha! Would love to see those roses of evil death. All roses are like that to me, since I haven’t figured out how to grow them yet! Thanks for checkin’ out my blog!

  8. I have a mimosa tree out front my husband is threatening to do a hack job like this on it..but then finish it off and take out roots and all..I’ve never seen this and am..surprised..

    • Dru,
      As a first step to a complete removal, this sorta pruning makes sense, I guess. When you top a tree severely, I really don’t see the point of keeping it!

  9. it is like watching a car accident — can’t look/can’t look away. I too have never heard or seen this crape myrtle murder… OK I get that it is a crime. but what is the correct way to prune these beauties?

    • Leeann,

      All I would do to prune crape myrtles is take out the branches that start to crowd one another, so that you have a nice open group of trunks. That’s what really shows off the bark and enhances the natural vase shape. As for when to prune, I would think spring makes the most sense but perhaps somebody out there knows better.

  10. Mary,
    I adore the satire in this post. Fortunately I have the stubs of TWO holly trees from the efforts of the siding/lanscape crew. As soon as it’s light, I’m going to go out and decorate them with lights AND snowflakes!

    Merry Christmas to you and your kin!

  11. Merry Christmas to me, I just found your blog (via Grounded Design) and love it! What a perfect first post of yours for me to read…Crepe Murder is soooo common here in VA, especially in the “professionally” landscaped and maintained yards. I love your sass and satire!

  12. I’ve been documenting tree atrocities across Southern California in my blog “Crimes Against Trees,” It’s both shocking, and sadly, hilarious what’s being done out there, and it seems every tree regardless gets the same rough treatment. I’m glad I came across your posting here…I don’t feel so alone. Thanks!

    • Oh my goodness Zabra, the pics on your site are beyond belief! It’s really sad that a person can actually devote a whole blog to the maiming of trees! Perhaps your crusade will begin to show people the error of their ways….let’s hope!

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