This weekend at the Glynn County Arbor Day Celebration, we had a resident ask about pruning her Crape Myrtles. She said:

I see that all of my neighbors have trimmed theirs and I feel like I am the last one to do it! When am I supposed to prune my Crape Myrtles? And do I need to trim them all the way down?

Glynn County Resident

If you ask any Extension Agent or Master Gardener Volunteer this question, we will cringe a little inside and hope that you are open to suggestion. Ultimately, no, you do not need to prune your Crape Myrtles all the way back like we see as a common landscape practice.

image of Crape Myrtle tree with top of trunks chopped off called Crape Murder
“Crape Murder”

To Prune or Not To Prune?

This practice stems from taking the Crape Myrtle growth habit a little too seriously. This flowering tree will only produce flowers on new growth. Pruning promotes new growth. With this logic, pruning produces new flowers.

These trees can withstand aggressive pruning and bounce back to still look beautiful in the same year. So why not prune them all the way back? Big chops save time instead of making tiny little cuts. There is less consideration applied because you don’t have to worry about the shape or if branches cross over – it will all be gone anyways!

While that line of thinking technically isn’t wrong, the tree will produce new growth each spring on its own. Thus removing the need for human intervention.

Pruning for growth promotion also brings about unwanted growth, such as suckers. These vertical branches will emerge from cuttings or the roots of the tree. They put a strain on the tree’s resources without adding value to the overall appearance. Suckers also promote powdery mildew and aphid populations. This can pass along to the larger canopy and cause tree health issues.

The most beautiful Crape Myrtles are those that are left to grow natural or with limited pruning. Plus from an aesthetic perspective, you don’t want those ugly cuttings and gnarled trunks marring your wonderful landscaping!

The Case for Pruning

All of this to say… there is some merit in pruning your Crape Myrtles (just not with the reckless abandon we so commonly see.) This can include thinning overcrowded canopies, removing water suckers, and maintaining the size and shape you wish to see in your landscape.

We can expect to see Crape Myrtles putting out new growth in the spring. Because of this, late winter- early spring is the most ideal time to prune. The tree is already in its dormant stages so you won’t remove any of those gorgeous flowers or new growth. Be careful with early pruning. If you prune before a freeze then you can kill the plant or damage the exposed tissues.

How to Properly Prune your Crape Myrtle

If you choose to prune however, follow the simple steps taken from the UGA Crape Myrtle Culture publication:

  1. First, remove suckers from the base of the plant.
  2. Second, as the tree grows, remove lower branches from the bottom third of the tree to expose the trunk character.
  3. Last, remove crowded or crossing branches from the canopy.

The seedheads are an attractive feature and should be left on the tree. As the new growth is pushed in the spring, the seedheads fall off. Some folks find that objectionable; if desired the seedheads can be removed by heading back to above where a leaf joins the stem, or if no leaves are present, just above a lateral bud. On some cultivars, pruning to remove spent flower blossoms after they fade will stimulate new growth and another blossom flush in late summer. A second bloom is sometimes difficult to force on cultivars that bloom after mid-July.

  • To develop a tree shape, select three to five radially-spaced branches slightly leaning to the outside, these will become the main trunks.
    • Remove side branches from these shoots about halfway up their height (“Fig. 6” below).
  • As the plant grows taller, more lower branches can be removed each year so the canopy begins 3 to 4 feet above ground level.
  • You may also need to remove suckers (new young succulent spouts that grow from the base) periodically in order to maintain the desired tree shape.
    • Some landscapers apply a synthetic plant growth regulator, called NAA (naphthalene acetic acid), to suckers after pruning to prevent them from re-sprouting.
3 images of the steps to prune a crape myrtle. 1st is a man cutting near the base of the tree. 2nd demonstrates the cutting he did. 3rd is the tree later in the year with new leaves growing on the branches left after pruning. Caption says " Figure 6. Pruning method for creating a crape myrtle tree."

Keep in Mind

There are many varieties with differing characteristics of Crape Myrtles. This gives you space be picky when selecting the variety you wish to plant in your landscaping. Think about the intended planting location, maximum height you wish to see, flower color, bark texture, and more. You can find a list of some variety recommendations and their characteristics in our Crape Myrtle Culture publication.

You may already have Crape Myrtles installed in your landscaping taking away your opportunity to select characteristics that you wish to see. Buying new plants may not be an investment that you are able to take on right now. Remember to be mindful of your time, budget, and overall vision.

If you have a landscaping service, be sure to contact them before they arrive to prune. They may be reluctant because mindful pruning does add time. Express your wishes and stick to your request. This is your landscaping after all and you are the one who has to look at it!

If you are feeling guilty as you look out at “murdered” Crape Myrtles in your landscaping right now, don’t feel bad! It is okay to accept that it happened and adjust your pruning methods for next year. There are no tree police who will come around and issue citations. Only Extension Agents like myself who are wishing you hadn’t 😉

*** Images without source were pulled from Crape Myrtle Culture publication C 944_8