Saturday, November 13, 2010


            It’s that time of year again, when people start noticing what their neighbors and the common-area keepers are doing to crape myrtles. As Tim and I work at fall maintenance for our beloved regulars around St. James, the question of the hour is, “Is it time to prune my crapes?”
            The short answer is “No.” That’s because you don’t ever have lay a finger on these easy-to-love standards of southern landscapes, Lagerstroemia indica x fauriei. In its January 1997 issue, Southern Living magazine published an article by Linda C. Askey entitled “Crepe Murder” about the unnecessary butchery that takes place every fall.
         Before you gleefully point to a rare spelling error, let me explain. I’ve combed every reference book I own for the correct spelling and form of crape myrtle. The eminent Michael Dirr and nurseryman David Byers (author of Crapemyrtle: A Grower’s Thoughts), agree it's “crapemyrtle,” one word; The Hillier Manual claims crape-myrtle, hyphenated, is correct; Gordon Halfacre votes for crape myrtle, two words. As illustrated above, Southern Living bucks the tide and insists on crepe myrtle, with crape creepily spelt. To me, a “crepe” can be a French pancake, a crinkly paper sold in rolls, or a type of shoe sole. I’m sticking with two words and the “a”. You can do what you want.

The heartbreak of stubbing
         Back to the subject at hand. Everyone’s seen stubbed crapes; you know, the ones that look like a maniac with a chain-saw having a temper fit did the work. Stubbing means cutting a branch far beyond the point of your basic shape-up pruning, with the end result of a sad collection of thick, ugly stubs (hence the name). Stubbing is a technique used by folks who don’t know any better:  it just seems a fast and easy way to polish off a pruning chore. Keep it up season after season, however, and you’ll end up eliminating your crape. A stubbed tree puts out lots of new wood in its bid for survival during the season immediately following the initial maiming. These are called adventitious branches, and they are weak by nature. The weight of their flowers can break them right off the tree. Because crapes flower on new wood, the resultant bumper crop of blooms the following summer encourages the ignorant buffoon—who obviously does not follow this blog—to repeat his performance in the fall. He then creates a stub (ugly) surrounded by a bunch of little stubs (uglier) that resemble nothing so much as the beseeching fingers of a deformed hand. As the heinous stubbing behavior continues, the tree loses more and more strength until it just dies. This scenario is what Ms. Askey dubbed “crape murder.”
         Often people defend stubbing as a way to keep a tree from getting too tall. Guess what? Crape myrtles cultivars range in height from 24 inches to 24 feet. Do a little research, and then go get one that will naturally stay within your parameters. If you already have a "too-tall" model in place, do it a favor and either move it somewhere it can attain its preordained stature, or kill it outright instead of torturing it by stubbing year after year. 
         Have I made it clear that stubbing is not a good technique for shaping up crapes?
         All right, then, you say, just how should a crape myrtle be pruned?
         Let’s address why first. The answer to why is: 1) you want to encourage prolific flowering; 2) you want to create a nice-looking tree; or 3) you don’t have a clue and would prefer not to be involved. Now we’ll talk how.
Take off seedballs, as at left,
or leave 'em on, as at right
·         To encourage flowering: I’ll let you in on a little secret here. Major branch removal does nothing-nada-zip-zero-zilch-nil-naught for bloom. Crapes flower because they are happy with their lives—enough sunlight, enough water, enough available nutrients. Now, if it’s the bloom period you’d like prolonged, well, there is something you can do to manipulate that. You can cut off the seedball clusters as they form. How can I be sure I’m removing seedballs and not flower buds? you cry. Easy! I reply. The hard green balls that appear after a flower has faded are the seeds: the buds are smaller, readily squished and usually show a bit of the flower color. Removing seedballs causes the plant to form lateral buds: thus, for every seedball you snip, two new shoots grow out that each produce another, albeit smaller, flower, right up until frost brings the whole process to a screeching halt.
·         If it’s a nice-looking tree you’re after, what we call shape-up pruning is the ticket. This is where you remove all those tiny twigs (the littlest ones break off nicely when you run your gloved hand along the branch toward the trunk), the last of the seedballs, any branches growing into the interior of the tree (because they won’t get enough light to flower anyway), and any dead, crossing, damaged, head-bonking-when-you-mow or otherwise unsightly or inconvenient branches. You can also determine how many trunks your mature crape will ultimately have by removing excess stems at the ground. Tim and I like single-trunked specimens best, but they’re hard come by. If we can’t get a single, we look for a three-stemmer. If we can’t find a three-stemmer, we take the best-looking one we have access to and make it a three-stemmer. For more compact cultivars, or if you prefer the shrubby look, just remove the seedballs and any dead stuff and leave the trunks alone. A good rule of thumb is to never cut off anything larger than the diameter of your little finger, unless you want it gone for good.
·         If you’d rather sit on the verandah sipping your mint julep than prune your crape myrtles, well, the good news is that you are perfectly within your rights to do so. Listen: this is really important. The plant itself just doesn’t care, one way or the other. Even with every seedball still on it, your crape will bloom year after year. The old seedballs are on old wood, see?
·         One major bonus of not bothering to remove the seedballs: in winter, crapes laden with seeds may attract flocks of hungry migratory finches and juncos. I’ve only witnessed the birds snacking on ripened crape seedballs out in the mountains, in the yard of the cabin where Tim and I used to hide out for Christmas before the economy went south. Tim says I’ve just not paid sufficient attention at home. He’s probably right. As usual.
         Now I suppose you want to know just when this pruning activity is to take place. Well, the seedballs need to go as they form during the bloom season, obviously, but again, only if you want to invest the effort. Shape-up pruning is done once the plant has gone dormant (lost its leaves). There’s what I consider a hilarious pronouncement on this subject in Henry Rehder, Jr.’s Growing a Beautiful Garden: A Landscape Guide for the Coastal Carolinas. On page 117, he suggests the week of November 27 is optimum. Believe me, the very last thing on my mind at Thanksgiving with only four weeks to go before Christmas is pruning the damn crape myrtles.  January is good; so is February. Some years December is okay too. If the end of March rolls around before you get to it, however, you should probably just forget it for that year.
         Besides, they’ll bloom next summer anyway.
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