Have Mercy on Crape Myrtles: Prune Properly and at Right Time

— Written By and last updated by Diane Lynch

Q: How do I correctly prune crape myrtles?

A: Crape myrtles are a popular tree or shrub in the landscape known for there bright flower display during the summer and attractive bark during the winter. With crape myrtles being a popular plant in the landscape for many people, a common question is when and how to prune them.
Crape myrtles should be pruned during the winter. Many people prune in late winter, from late February into early March. The important thing to remember is to prune crape myrtles right before new growth begins in the spring. A crape myrtle’s flower buds are produced on new growth. So once new growth starts in the spring, flower buds for the summer will begin to form on current new growth.

When it comes to how to prune crape myrtles, many are not pruned properly. Often you see the tops of crape myrtles cut off so that there are a few large branches left. This incorrect pruning is often jokingly called “crape murder”. This type of pruning is not recommended because it destroys the natural form and shape of the plant. Some do this type of pruning with the idea that it promotes flowering, however, branches that grow from these drastic cuts are weak and poorly attached to the main branches. Not only will these weak branches be easily damaged in wind and ice, but they will not be strong enough to hold up flowers during the summer causing the weak branches to sag from the weight of the flowers.

Crape myrtles are actually low-maintenance when it comes to pruning. Usually crape myrtles only need light pruning once the shape of the plant is established. When pruning, remember that new growth will emerge 3 to 4 inches below where the limb is cut. Avoid cutting back large limbs and leaving stubs, because an abundance of new growth will emerge near the cut, looking like pom-poms on stalks and is not the natural habit of a crape myrtle.

When you first begin to prune a crape myrtle, you want to select three to five of the strongest and healthiest trunks and cut the other trunks out at ground level. Remove water sprouts that you see come up from the ground any time of the year. As the crape myrtle grows, you can remove lower branches from the main trunks to raise the canopy of the tree.
When pruning, thin out areas with many branches by cutting selected branches or limbs back to where it meets another branch. This thinning will help allow for good air circulation throughout the tree canopy, which can reduce the chances of powdery mildew which often occurs during the summer.

As when pruning any plant, you should always remove the three D’s: dead, dying, and diseased branches. Eliminate any crossing branches, even if the branches are not yet touching each other. Crossing branches can eventually touch each other which will allow for the branches to rub and open wounds that can allow access for disease and insects into the tree. Remove branches that are growing toward the center of the tree canopy or growing downward. You want the branches to grow upward and outward from the tree’s center.

Even though it is often seen, remember to avoid cutting crape myrtles back so much that just large branches or stubs are left. This type of pruning will not provide you with an attractive crape myrtle in the landscape. By simply practicing some routine pruning in late winter to clean up and encourage the natural form that crape myrtles are known for, you will be provided with attractive crape myrtles in the landscape year round.

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Jessica Strickland
Extension Agent
North Carolina Cooperative Extension
Wayne County Center
P. O. Box 68
Goldsboro, NC 27533
E-Mail: jessica.strickland@waynegov.com
Phone: 919-731-1520
Fax: 919-731-1511