Please don’t cut tops off crape myrtles

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, March 7, 2001

The Natchez landscape will take on a more beautiful appearance this summer because of Sallie Ballard’s efforts. Her love of the popular crape myrtle led her recently to take charge of a most successful program, which has resulted in many dozens of new trees now ready to leaf out and by early summer to produce their showy flowers.

Lately Sallie has found her heart sinking, though, as she began to notice some crape myrtles with the tops lopped off. She dropped off an article written by a professional horticulturist at LSU and asked for some publicity about pruning crape myrtles.

Getting Dr. Allen Owings on the phone was a simple matter. I found the LSU AgCenter Web site, read more about crape myrtles there and found his phone number.

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He graciously spoke with me and offered some advice for all who love crape myrtles and have them in their yards or gardens.

Now is an opportune time to prune, but Dr. Owings said lopping off the top is the wrong way to treat a crape myrtle.

&uot;The right thing to do is to try to maintain the height the crape myrtle has reached and just thin out to allow air and sun in the shrub or tree.&uot;

Owings said crape myrtles come in five size categories, some growing to only about three feet and the largest to 20 to 40 feet if they are cared for properly and pruned appropriately.

&uot;We recommend pruning the crape myrtles a little earlier than this, but it will be all right to do it all the way through March,&uot; Owings said. &uot;Even if they have started leafing out, it’s still OK to prune.&uot;

In Baton Rouge, where Owings lives and works, crape myrtles are just beginning to leaf out this week. Natchez should not be far behind.

Crape myrtles also like a dose of fertilizer about this time of the year, late winter or early spring, he said. &uot;You can use a triple-13 or an 8-8-8, the same thing you’d use in your vegetable garden; or you can use a slow-release fertilizer such as Osmocote.&uot;

Lopping off the tops of crape myrtles not only destroys the shape of the plant but also causes something Owings calls &uot;crape myrtle arthritis.&uot;

&uot;If you cut off the tops in the same place each year, you’ll get a swollen knotty growth where the cuts are made.&uot;

These knots are unsightly and help to demonstrate his argument that the shrub or tree does not respond to topping, Owings said.

Why do gardeners want to cut the tops of crape myrtles? Owings said they mistakenly believe they will get more growth and more flowers.

&uot;You may see more concentrated color because it’s all bunched together on a smaller tree or shrub, but the crape myrtle that isn’t topped will have the same amount of growth and just as many flowers,&uot; he said.

The crape myrtle is one of the most popular among ornamental trees and shrubs, Owings said.

&uot;They flower in the summer when there are not that many flowering trees or shrubs and they are easy to care for; and lately there are so many more colors and varieties to choose from.&uot;

If a crape myrtle owner wants to reverse the effects of improper pruning, there are steps that can be taken, he said. However, the process may take several years.

For information about how to correct the growth patterns, gardeners may check the AgCenter’s Web site, Use the search tool on the home page, typing in crape myrtle as key words.

Joan Gandy is special projects director for The Democrat. She can be reached at 445-3539 or via e-mail at