Crape Murder is OK

Ornate Wattle
Ornate Wattle

Is someone shaming you for pruning your shrubs and trees the way professionals have done it for CENTURIES? Or… are you one of those meddlesome, self-appointed taste makers who needlessly shame neighbors for doing as they please in their own gardens?

Historic fact: Pruning isn’t butchery. We do it all the time with hedges, with the biggest consideration being do we go with round balls, sheared boxes, or whimsical topiary?

Yet for one peculiar reason, Southern gardeners who shame neighbors for pollarding their crape myrtles have become poster children for the “hortiholier-than-thou’.

First time I heard the term “crape murder” – the widespread butchering of perfectly healthy crape myrtle trees – was from my old friend Steve Bender, senior garden editor for Southern Living magazine. What started as an insider joke went mainstream – garden writers, Master Gardeners and others lost their minds as they jumped on it like a bandwagon for bigots.

Felder Hugging America's Oldest Crape Myrtle
I love crape myrtles. I’ve hugged the country’s oldest one at Middleton Place, SC

I DO know the proper way to prune a crape myrtle, shaping it up and out while retaining its natural shape. For those who are trained and choose to do it right. For the rest of you, just do what you like. There’s no horticultural purgatory if you mess up.

Correctly Pruned Crape Myrtle
Crape Myrtle Correctly Pruned to Retain Natural Shape

Personal and Professional Opinion Aside

It’s not my place to criticize – or applaud – a garden practice that really doesn’t matter much in any big pictures, any more than I dare make snarky comments about what some folks do to poodle dogs. Shame on counter-intuitive garden experts who do.

Truth is, there’s really not a huge philosophical difference between cutting crapes back, and shaping plants through the ancient art of bonsai, or fantastic topiary gardens such as the centuries-old one at Levens Hall in northern England. Or how every other garden in Japan proudly features niwaki – highly-sculpted shrubs and trees; what we call “poodle” plants are in japan called “floating clouds.”

Weirdly pruned shrubs
Levens Hall Topiary

Pollarding, Coppicing – What Do They Mean?

Coppicing is a way to grow uniform fence posts, by cutting certain species of trees down to the ground every few years. Been done for centuries. Crape myrtles are easily coppiced by drunk drivers in pickup trucks; the plants always grow right back up.

Coppiced tree waiting to be fenceposts
Coppiced trees waiting to become fenceposts

Pollarding is when stems are cut back to a single point, from which many long, slender shoots sprout; these are cut off every year, usually to provide forage for animals or pliable weaving material for garden stakes and “wattle” fencing. Or just for looks – it’s often done in botanic gardens for colorful new shoots on ornamental trees and shrubs.

Pollarded Scarlet Willow
Pollarded scarlet willow in English botanic garden

From a physiological point of view, pollarding doesn’t harm plants any more than does regular rose or hedge pruning; in fact, as those who care for ancient topiary gardens will attest, it can actually help plants live longer than nearby unpruned plants of the same species.

However – and this is where horticulturists DO have a point – there is a difference between regular pollarding and the occasional “topping” trees; the latter is simply cutting big limbs or trunks off and letting a witch’s broom sprout back out. As my horticulturist friend Carol Reese from the University of Tennessee put it, “While topping a tree is not likely to kill it, the masses of weakly attached new growth can easily snap in wind or under ice loads.” And the large wounds often decay before they have a chance to heal over.

Crape Myrtle Cut Completely Down
Real Crape Murder

Stop the Shaming

So, the truth is – and I am a trained arborist who taught the course in college – to prune or not to prune a crape myrtle is a matter of personal style, not a horticultural edict. Sure, it looks kinda goofy – at least to meddlesome self- or university-appointed tastemakers. But it mostly boils down to a matter of personal preference.

Besides, I have photographed pollarded crape myrtles in ancient Shinto gardens in Japan, and pollarded trees around Shakespeare’s place in England. The smart folks at the headquarters of the American Horticulture Society have a century-old pollarded tree. You’d think they know what they’re doing. And you see them at Disney’s EPCOT – a world-famous horticulture showcase. So…are all these folks stupid?

Ancient crape myrtle in Japan, century-old pollard at AHS headquarters

 

300-year-old gate sculpture of pollarding
300-year-old gate sculpture of pollarding

Oh, I’m aware that some folks say it simply isn’t natural. Yeah, and neither is shaping boxwoods into big green meatballs. Or, for that matter, plucking natural eyebrows and painting fake ones higher up on the forehead. Can we just stop with the plant-body shaming of folks who prune crape myrtles?

Still, the bottom line remains that this historic, useful and decorative practice of pollarding doesn’t really harm crape myrtles. So if you really don’t like the practice, simply don’t do it.

Same Crape Myrtle, Winter and Summer

But stop the shaming. Now that you understand the difference between horticultural fact and personal choice of style, stop being a bigot by picking on the many gardeners who simply like something a little different.

I mean, it either is or ain’t your own tree. Just sayin’.

You choose which way to roll
You choose which way to roll