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 Stop the Crape Murder

Give your plants a fighting change, stop the crape murder
Round Rock Leader
Saturday, January 8, 2005
By Emsud Horozovic, City of Round Rock Forestry Manager

It seems to be that at the start of every year I write an article about the problem of topping crapemyrtles. You’ll be seeing this article every January until I either retire or most of you quit topping these elegant trees!

“Off with their heads!” is usually associated with Shakespeare’s time, but unfortunately it is also the battle cry for a modern, but misguided, approach to tree pruning. “Beheading” trees, also called “topping,” refers to the brutal pruning assault in which most of the top portion of a tree is chopped off, leaving it looking something like a hat rack. The most common victim of this crime is one of our area’s most beloved species—the crapemyrtle (Lagerstroemia indica). It’s important to keep in mind that pruning is something to be done only in moderation as a helping hand to nature. Crapemyrtles do not need to be topped to have lush growth and vigorous blooming. Here’s how to get the most from your friend—the crapemyrtle…

Start off right and avoid pruning altogether

Crapemyrtles are not shade trees. They should not be planted with the expectation that they’ll adequately shade a house, driveway, patio, or parking lot. Crapemyrtles are also over planted in Round Rock. Consider other ornamental trees to diversify our landscape. Some examples are redbuds, vitex, desert willow, mountain laurels, Mexican plums. With that in mind, let’s focus on the colorful, long-blooming crapemyrtle.

Just as in real estate, the best tree is all about location, location, and location. Sometimes people top trees because they get too tall or wide for their location. Take the time before planting to make sure the tree you want is the right one for the site. Make sure you know what the size of the tree will be at maturity before you buy it (dwarf varieties are available). They like full sun, do well in most soils, and are fairly problem-free except for the tendency to get aphids, mildew, and suckers at the base. Do not plant them under large shade trees or next to walls, fences, or any other structure that would shade the tree. Remember, you will only get those magnificent blooms if the tree receives full sun! Also, there are a variety of colors available: red, pink, lavender, and white just to name a few.

A sunny, slightly elevated site with good drainage is an ideal spot for your crapemyrtle. Mildew can be controlled by watering near the base of the tree at ground level during hot months and avoid spraying the bark and leaves (by the way, this is good advice for all trees). It is not necessary to fertilize them and you should avoid over-watering. By the way, your favorite crapemyrtle can be cloned by propagating through cuttings or seeds.

If you have to prune

The best time to prune is during the dormant season of January and February. The most prudent pruning procedure is to remove old flower clusters and thin out small twiggy growth and remove broken or diseased  branches as well as those damaged by storms or insects. Remove the weaker of any two limbs that are crossing and rubbing on each other. If there is dense growth within the canopy, reduce the branching within the canopy so the remaining branches get more sunlight and air which will increase blooming and reduce mildew.

There are over 550 crapemyrtles planted in the city’s right-of-ways, parks, and around city buildings. Look at these trees as examples of proper pruning techniques. For a look at magestic, tall trees see the crapemyrtles located at the Police Department complex on Highway 79 and illustrated below.

Why is topping so damaging?

If a tree were a person, topping would be the equivalent to removing half the stomach. Because a tree uses its leaves to provide food for itself, the removal of too many leaves will result in starvation—especially for larger trees. For crapemyrtles, topping not only destroys the natural beauty and form of the tree, it also makes the resulting growth weak and more susceptible to breakage and storm damage. Topping also invites decay and infestation by insects.

If it’s so bad, why does everyone do it?

It’s a “copy cat” crime. Tree topping is a misused tree care technique that has been copied, repeated, and perpetuated more than any other one. Homeowners and residents new to the area see what the “landscape” companies do and assume it represents proper care for crapemyrtle. Landscape companies often do little more than perpetuate this incorrect and often damaging pruning practice. The more people copy it, the more commonplace and legitimate it appears. The original basis for topping was the belief that it increases blooming and also removes potentially hazardous branches. Actually, the opposite is true. Unaware, homeowners copy what they see tree companies doing. The widespread use of topping by tree “professionals” makes it much harder to inform the public of the truth: that tree topping is damaging to your trees and serves no useful purpose.

Fixing the damage

Identify the straightest and strongest branches from the stubbed trunks and thin out and remove other growth. If it is not possible to correct years of topping, cut the crapemyrtle to the ground and replace it by training new plants that grow from suckers. Select several new suckers and train them. In two or three years they should replace the old plant.

A crapemyrtle by any other name is still the same

The spellings may be numerous (crapemyrtle, crape myrtle, crepe myrtle, and crepe-myrtle) and the scientific name may be confusing (it is named “indica” rather then “chinensis”, even though it is indigenous to China, and not India). Dr. Ted Bilderback of North Carolina State University writes, “If we can’t agree on how to spell crapemyrtle, it is not surprising that there is controversy on how to prune it.”

Crapemyrtles are among the best landscaping trees available. They are tough, adaptable, pest and drought resistant, and their showy blooms and distinctive trunks make them a welcome addition to any yard. And remember, Crapemyrtles are trees and are capable of growing 25-30 feet tall. Though not native, they were introduced in the U.S. more than a century and a half ago and are well adapted to our area.

Winter can be a frustrating time for gardeners. But during this “down time” in the yard, consider preparing your gardening beds for spring, plant some new trees, learn proper tree pruning, even go skiing, but don’t top your crapemyrtles! Let’s all be crime fighters and eliminate crape murder. What can you do? Spread the word among your friends and neighbors and lead by example. Use proper pruning techniques on your own trees or use only quality professional companies that do not top trees. Your trees will thank you by providing beautiful blooms.

Forestry Manager Emsud Horozovic
Phone: 512-218-5540

City of Round Rock | 221 East Main Street, Round Rock, Texas 78664 | Phone: (512) 218-5400
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