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Master Gardeners care for these Southern beauties

NATCHEZ — An annual manicure keeps crepe myrtle trees looking their best, so members of the Adams County Master Gardeners volunteer club gathered at the Natchez City Cemetery Thursday to give the trees the attention they require.

A dozen Master Gardeners gathered around Joanne King as she briefed the group on how to avoid “crepe murder.”

While the proper spelling of crepe myrtles is up for debate, the method of caring for them is clear.

King said crepe myrtles produce blooms in shades of white, pink, red and purple, garnishing an equally stunning flesh-like bark.

It’s best to prune crepe myrtles when they are dormant and the sap is in the ground, King said. January and February are the most ideal months for pruning.

Caring for the trees is basically common sense, but King said, whatever you do, stop, don’t chop.

“The first step to pruning a crepe myrtle is to step back and look at it,” King said.

King led the group to several crepe myrtles on Roman Catholic Hill, and then selected what limbs and branches needed to be cut.

Knowing what to cut takes a little instruction or practice.

Master Gardener Tina Rollins laughed when she recalled a group of amateur gardeners who joined the pruning, and they spent 30 minutes analyzing each tree.

“Most of the branches can be removed, as long as they aren’t growing from the inside of the tree,” King said.

A crepe myrtle regenerates from its root, and often the new tree is plainly visible as it grows from the center of the trunk.

“It’s like new life growing out of the old,” King said.

King said the second step is to cut the selected branches from a crepe myrtle. It’s best to use large pruning shears, or loppers. Cut the branch off next to the collar, or base, but be careful not to remove the entire collar. If a branch is properly cut, the jagged collar will heal over with bark, that will leave a smooth knot and no suckers will sprout from it.

King and other Master Gardeners in the group agreed that branches need to be cut if they are rubbing together, which destroys the bark and weakens the limbs.

The third and more time-consuming step is picking or snipping the suckers off the remaining branches. Suckers are twigs that will eventually grow into branches and weigh the tree down and tangle, preventing air circulation. King said the suckers that grow from the base of the tree need attention for the health of the tree, not just because they are unattractive.

King said it’s important to keep the crepe myrtles pruned neatly so air can circulate which helps the trees stay free of disease.

“Each year you do a little less trimming,” King said. “They just have to be spruced up.”

One sign that a crepe myrtle is stressed is the presence of lichen. King said she is also concerned with Spanish moss growing on crepe myrtles.

“It’s only my opinion, but I think Spanish moss smothers it,” King said. “Some people think its romantic, but I think it’s death.”

King said crepe myrtles are special because they are easy to grow, enhance landscapes and look beautiful all year, blooming or not.

A branch cut from crepe myrtle trees can be used to generate into a whole new tree. King advised cutting the discarded branches at an angle, and scraping the bark off about five or six inches up. The branch can then be transplanted into a pot, and eventually it will become a tree.

“Waste not, want not,” King said.

King said crepe myrtles are also important because of their ubiquitous presence in the South.

“Crepe myrtles are the tree of the South,” King said. “They are just as pretty when they are blooming, as the bark is in the winter. Crepe myrtles are truly a Southern beauty.”

For information about crepe myrtles or interest in becoming a Master Gardener, contact the Adams County Extension Office at 601-445-8201.

The next Master Gardener training class on basic botany will be from 1 to 4 p.m. on Feb. 15.