Friday, January 25, 2008

Crepe Murder

Crepe myrtles are my favorite small tree. I have talked about them before in previous posts and will talk about them in future posts as well. They are such diverse and beautiful trees that bring so much color and interest to southern landscapes that they will inevitably take up a big part of this blog.

The fact crepe myrtles are so diverse can be their downfall. There are so many varieties in the nursery world that it is hard for the average gardener to know what they are purchasing. Even when the gardener knows what he or she wants and is purchasing, there is no guarantee the tree purchased is labeled correctly. I have already told you the story about going to a certain big box store and finding crepe myrtles on sale. Of course I was going to buy one of each variety since I am not one to pass up a sale on my favorite small tree. I think the varieties were Centennial Spirit, Tonto, Pink Crepe Myrtle (no such cultivar), and Natchez. All the labels said the trees grow to 5-8 feet high with an equal spread. Okay. Fair enough. Maybe all of these varieties DO grow this way, but only in a perfect world where all nursery labels are 100% accurate each and every time we purchase a plant. Since this is not a perfect world, these trees will not all grow to the height and width stated on the labels.

This is where a little research up front will save much heartache later. There is nothing worse than planting a tree next to the house that you expect will only grow to about 8 feet tall by 8 feet wide, and finding out the tree will actually grow to 20 feet tall by 15 feet wide-when it has outgrown its spot! It is too late then. The only alternative you have is to either take out the tree or prune it down to size-regularly and forever.
And believe it or not, there are people who do prune their crepes down-to practically nothing! One of my friends (who shall remain nameless) says, "Well Tina, you know they get SO big-like 20 feet tall-What am I supposed to do?" She is one who cuts her crepes back and 'murders' them, but for very good reasons, at least in her opinion. I am not going to change anyone's opinion about pruning trees, but I hope I can give you some alternatives to pruning which can, with a little foresight, prevent this practice from continuing on such a widespread basis.

I don't know about you, but I don't want to prune trees to the right size for the rest of my life and its life. I want to plant the right tree in the right spot the first time around. This is not always as simple as it sounds and I have made my fair share of mistakes.

The tip is to plant the right tree in the right spot the first time. Of course, to be fair many, many people inherit overgrown trees. As in the case of my friend. She truly loves her crepes but they are too big for the space they are planted in. She doesn't want to take them out so she feels cutting them back is the best option. Maybe so, but to have to cut them back for the rest of her life, or let them go to grow out of control is just an option I don't see as viable for the long term. Eventually they will have to be taken out. That is the only solution for her since the landscaper or a previous homeowner planted the right crepe in the wrong place or planted the wrong crepe in the right place.

It is too bad. Just because that person is not around to deal with the problem does not mean it is OK. I feel like when we plant plants, especially trees, we need to be responsible and think long term. Trees will be with us a very long time and it is unconscionable to plant trees in the wrong place but it happens ALL the time. That being said, I do have a disclaimer and a secret, I plant plants in the wrong place all the time! Yes, it is sad but true. Fortunately, I am able to move my plants around, but trees, there comes a point you cannot move them so think carefully before you plant!
To help you all understand crepe myrtle varieties before planting, please do not rely on the plant tag to guide you when purchasing. This advice applies to other plants as well, but I am specifically addressing crepes because there are so many cultivars and varieties that one has to know what they are purchasing prior to buying and planting. If you buy without understanding what you are getting, then research the cultivar when you get home to understand the plant's growth habit and ultimate size. A favorite website I use in order to understand the different types of crepes can be found at:

Using this website and researching your crepes will save many a tree from crepe murder, and you, the homeowner or gardener or landscaper from needless pruning. There is no valid reason to ever prune crepes down to mere nubs. Crepe myrtles bloom on new wood and it may seem like the tree is neater and has more blooms, but the pruning is hurting the tree and making the off season really be an off season for crepes.

I want to thank my accomplice, uh um, helper Skeeter, with getting me some pictures of murdered crepe myrtles in another state. I thought it might be a little uncomfortable asking if I could take some pictures of badly pruned crepes around town here in Clarksville. We have our share, believe me. That is why my hat's off to Skeeter for bravely snapping these super pictures of our beloved 'murdered' crepes. Not only are homeowners guilty of crepe murders, but many, many business owners as well. All of the murdered crepe pictures above were taken at businesses out of state. Skeeter especially thought the fifth picture above was ironic. Notice the neat pile of red mulch stacked behind the murdered crepe? I find all of the pictures to be shocking but the first murdered crepe picture of the very mature crepe cut down to about two feet is the worst one for me.
The natural form of these crepe myrtles would look something like the first and last pictures on this post (which are of the very same tree). This tree is growing in a friend's (Lola) garden here in Clarksville. She and her husband planted two many, many years ago. Lola told me she and her husband only lightly prune out suckers at the base and keep the inside tidy. Basically pruning, dead, diseased or damaged and crossing branches only. I am not sure which variety this particular crepe is as I have not seen it in bloom. But it is obvious this crepe will grow upright in a broad vase shape. Some crepes naturally grow in a low shrub form, or upright spreading, or rounded, etc. The website will tell you the type of shape a particular crepe will have. Can you just imagine all of the blooms on this crepe in the summer? So many more than on murdered crepes.

As a bonus with this crepe, you can clearly see the power lines above the tree. Crepes are generally small trees, and according to my research you will be lucky to find one taller than 30-35 feet. I have never seen one taller. Not even in Virginia and North Carolina, where you will not find finer specimen crepe myrtles, have I seen taller crepes. If this crepe were of the large variety (and I believe it is), it will not reach those power lines. This crepe will not grow much taller and there is still enough clearance under those wires. Crepes are one type of tree I recommend planting under power lines. But that is another post and this one has been quite long already.

in the garden....thinking about summer crepe myrtle blooms.


  1. In their natural state with no leaves or flowers they look exactly like the lilacs up here. If they smell and look as nice as the lilacs they are as good as it gets.

  2. Hi Mom and good morning to you!
    Our little southern crepe myrtles are actually sometimes referred to as the "Lilacs of the South". Because while lilacs do somewhat grow down here, they do not compare to the ones up north. Our crepes are not fragrant and the petals are different, but oh so beautiful and they actually bloom longer than the lilacs. A friend gave me four lilacs a few years ago and they are actually living and one occasionally blooms, so i am able to get the lilac fragrance. Yeah! I think that when I really think about it, I like the smell of lilacs better than almost anything growing in the garden-honeysuckle would be my next fragrant with moonflowers and brugmansia and four o clocks coming up next in line.

  3. Mom, Is lilac your favorite scent in the garden? Or maybe roses? What about some of you other readers?

  4. Decided to check back before getting off the computer and here is a new post!

    Actually the one picture that looks as though the Myrtle has been cut to a few feet above the ground is taller then the photo makes it out to be. This myrtle is in the middle of a huge bush! I was afraid of backing up too much due to a high traffic area and feared someone would question my picture snapping! LOL. If you look off into the distance at the brick sign, it may give you a better perspective of how tall the myrtle really is but still should not have been cut at all! The landscaping is way far from the business complex and if they were at full height, they would not detract to the business but rather be an asset to draw attention in my book!I fyou notice in the background as well the Pears trees have not been cut! So why the myrtles???

    I think it is Hilton Head S.C. that has wonderful codes where businesses are concerned. I can only assume they have strict codes because you cannot see the business but rather beautifully landscaped areas hiding big ugly cement parking lots! I love that idea…

    The Myrtles in our yard were butchered the first year by us not knowing any better. I then noticed tons in town that were never clipped and thriving so we opt out on cutting them and they are beautiful each year! I was under the impression you had to cut them to get them to bloom! I tell you I am a “Learn As You Go” in the Garden, but learning something new all the time! We cut them when living in TX also. Duh on my part for not educating myself by researching instead of doing what the Jones did…. Lol

    My favorite picture of the ones snapped is the one at a business next door to the nursery! The mulch in the background is priceless. I wonder what the nursery owners think of that Murdered Myrtle in view of their business… Too ironic…

  5. My favorite scent no doubt is the Jasmine! Such a sweet smell that carries a nice distance...

    Saint just called and is calling it a day and on his way home. Not sick, just skating out early. So bye for now...

    Y’all have a good weekend and keep warm!

  6. YES YES YES!!! Nothing in the world has the sweet smell of fresh lilacs. The old fashion roses sure do have a good smell but so many of the new ones do not have the fragrance the old fashion ones do. Also, even the old ones will not smell a whole acre or more like the lilacs. With the lilacs you can smell them in the house with an opened window. They are great. The drawback is they do not last long. Even in water in the house you have to change every 2 or 3 days and on the bush you only get a couple of weeks of blooms. But when you do have them in the house they sure do make a stunning bouquet and some years (but not every) the lupine is in bloom at the same time and put a few of them with the lilacs and it is twice as stunning! And the honeysuckle does also have a good smell. Before I had air condition all summer I also could smell that in the house with an opened window.
    I have always loved plants and gardens but never was an avid gardener like you and NEVER knew a speck of what you know but this blog has sure jogged my memory on sooooo much and taught me lots. Thank you so much for that. Wish I was still able to do the gardening that I now dream of. LOL Oh well, at least I still have my mind to think and dream! Memories are great!!! And I do love learning even if I can't put it to good use. Knowledge is what makes the world go round.

  7. Tina, I'm sorry to say, but our crepe myrtle did look like the last picture, but the cold snap last year got to it. We "murdered" it hoping that it will come back this year - worth a try!

    I'm with Jean, my favorite is the lilac.

    We have a beartiful tree in our yard, a tulip popular. I originally purchased it for a tulip tree, I don't know if I read the label wrong or if it was labeled wrong. It took several years for me to realize that it was not what I had thought. Anyway luckily it was planted in an o.k. spot!

  8. Three votes for lilac and one for for jasmine. I am so surprised roses haven't made the list!

    Skeeter, Thanks so much for those pictures! I think that sometimes people do innocently cut these great trees and that is ok. I am glad you now know and your crepes are beautiful. Looking at the pictures of them I would never have guessed you had murdered them. Good thing they rebounded no problem.

    You have a good day with the Saint and it is great he can start the weekend early.

    Mom, I am so glad to bring back memories. That is one of my objectives in addition to sharing and educating.

    I only know a few things because I am one of those people who now takes a gardening textbook to bed to read. How awful really! I thought I was the only one but my friend Nancy takes home decorating to books to read, so now I don't feel sooo bad. I do intersperse the gardening books with some good murder/horror/historical novels so I am not totally immersed in gardens.

    Nina, I am so glad you brought up the cold snap last year. It did damage soooooo many crepes. Some which were 10-15 feet are now only about 4 feet tall. You did right to prune out the dead parts and this really will be able the only way to 'fix' the tree, relatively speaking. It will take years for the crepes to recover back to their former glory. I truly don't consider this type of pruning to be crepe murder. Part of good maintenance pruning is to take out the dead branches and you are ahead of the game by having it done already. Tree pruners and landscapers will be busy trimming out the dead parts on crepes this spring once everything finally leafs out.

    Tulip Poplars, aka liriodendron tulipifera are Tennessee's state tree. They are gorgeous trees easily confused with another tulip tree, aka magnolia soulangiana. These two trees are vastly different and I am so glad you put your 'tulip tree' in the right spot as yours gets QUITE huge compared to the magnolia one. My neighbor has two. While I love them they drive me nuts! Their roots are very fibrous and suck all the moisture from the ground, including a very large border garden I have about 15-20 feet fromt the tree. If you have a garden anywhere near your tulip tree make sure you plant very drought tolerant plants and plants which can compete with the intricate root system of the tulip poplars.

  9. I like roses, love their smell.
    Lilacs are wonderful also and the scent does carry.
    This is awful pruning I am very surprised it doesn't ruin the tree, looks as if someone doesn't want the tree but ran out of time to finish.

  10. Ok, now three votes lilacs, one for jasmine and now, finally, one for roses. Somehow I would picture you loving the rose smell a whole bunch. Don't you have some growing in your garden?

  11. dawn with peaches, forgot to say, i guess i too got excited to see dragon on here and all thoughts left my mind. it does looks like someone started taking out this tree and didn't finish the job. i just noticed in my garden i have another dogwood-dead. the bark has completely fallen off in 4 foot strip. crazy. they don't do well in my garden but i hate to lose any dogwoods! i will finish the job.

  12. Wow, With all the beautiful smells from Roses to Lilacs to Crepes to Jasmine---How can you pick just one. I have a Jasmine growing on a lattice wall behind my glider swing & when it's in bloom---it smells so good it will almost take your breath away. In fact you can smell it all over the yard. Even the neighbors can smell it. Now TuberRose is another matter. Have you ever smelled one? Sense of smell goes crazy.
    I agree about the crepes. I don't think they should be "murdered" either. In fact they don't need to be trimmed at all. I read that. But sadly they do it here too. Just trim to keep healthy.
    Have a great week-end all.

  13. Well said Lola-where's Doodles? Either one is fine with me! It is hard to chose just one smell. I have never smelled tuberRose. What is it? Does it smell like jasmine or honeysuckle or anything else like that?

  14. There is NOTHING like the smell of a lilac --I absolutely LOVE them, wish I could bottle that scent up year round. Nothing can compare to the smell of them wafting thru the front door --ah, memories of the north and lilacs. Mine down south don't last very long and don't seem to have that strong of a scent. Planted a new one this fall --I hope it smells good --it's real close to the house --a stones throw away:)

  15. ahhh, a tulip tree....I never heard on one so I must look for one. Sounds very intersting.

    You have a good weekend also Lolo and everyone else.

    anonymous you are so right about the smell but then again some of your native things are not the same in the north. Where did you live in the north, if you do not mind me asking.

  16. Tubar-rose grows from a bulb. The flowers are white on a stalk about 12" high. Flowers are up & down top of stalk. Their smell is so intense it's hard to discribe. I brought it back from N. C.. They grow them in hanging pots there. I only had it 1 yr. I guess the bulb rotted or frooze but I sure would like another. Will try to locate one. It's worth it & I will take better care of it this go round

  17. My favorite lilacs with the delicious smell are fond memories of the Pocono Mountains in Northeast Pennsylvania:)

  18. Some tuber rose bulbs were given to me last spring. They have to be dug and stored for the winter in our zone. The flower is small but did have a good fragrance. Mine haven't multiplied enought to divide this year, but maybe the next.

  19. ohh, I've never heard of tuber roses, must keep my eyes peeled for them.

  20. Dawn, just happened to be looking through garden catalogs this a.m. and found the tuberose in one of them. Go to item #62854. This is a double flowered one, but you can see what they look like.

  21. Looks like lilac is winning the vote as people's favorite scent (at least in the garden readers). Wow. Lola sent me some instructions for growing tuberroses. I plan to look them up and find out what exactly they are. Dawn and Lola make sure you check out Nina's link to purchase some. Mom, you come down here in the spring and the magnolia soulangianas (aka tulip tree) are SO beautiful. The one downfall they have is if we get a late freeze the flowers get blackened, wilt and go away. Two springs ago we had the most beauttiful display of them though and they are definitely worth planting. I might try to find room for one. Just kidding, I probably have enough-yeah right!

  22. I like the smell of Gardenia also!
    We had several dwarf ones we planted in a planter up by the road for the neighbors to enjoy. They did great the first year then died from blight or something....

    Dont recall ever smelling Lilac. My parents have a bush I think is a lilac bush but never been home when it is blooming but have seen pictures of it in bloom. Really pretty! With all the lilac votes, y’all have my curiosity going…

  23. Those are some painful pictures!

  24. hey skeeter,
    i would say you haven't smelled lilac because you are from the south but truly lilac grows here in tennessee. it is so unique. you might remember it from germany as it grew VERY well in germany. it bloomed in april or may with white, sometimes pink and purple flowers. do you remember? if you come up here in the spring i will keep you posted when it blooms up here and maybe you can smell it.

    do you see a lot of crepe murder down your way? i think it is a knowledge problem and if people knew they didn't have to cut them back they would probably stop and be so much happier. i mean who wants to prune like this every year? not me that is for sure. the less pruning i have to do the better, though i always carry my clippers in the garden.

  25. Pretty much every commercial place has them trimmed this way. It looks awful to me, I'll never to it that way. Only trim what you need to for the good of the tree! Crossing branches and the like.

  26. Knowing that you are a gardener, I know you would not trim a tree that way. Not even to take cuttings!:)

  27. I came here looking for that hydrangea post and I just had to comment on is a huge pet peeve of mine...topping off a isn't just the crepes..I see people around here do it with everything from oaks to bradford pears. I just fume when I see it..I want to knock on the door and tell them..."well, you might as well just remove that tree right now because you have killed it" I think what upsets me most is that some tree company actually does this work..a truly educated arborist would know better. Okay..I'm off to find that post..don't be surprised if I commment on other post as I'm looking for it...LOL

  28. Hi Rhonda! I hope you found my post on my mother's hydrangea. I think I posted it in May under "The Will to Live and Thrive". Something like that. Yes, tree topping is such a waste and sad thing to see. It really kills the tree. Around here folks think it helps to prevent trees from toppling, but no, it does the opposite. Education is the key but still there are ones who refuse to believe and see. Tree trimmers do not have to be certified. Have chainsaw, will cut is the motto there.