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Hoyt Williamson demonstrates the proper place to prune crepe myrtles on some trees that have been poorly cut - what he calls crepe murdering. Williamson is a horticulture instructor at Calhoun Community College and the Limestone Correctional Facility.
DAILY Photo by Gary Cosby Jr.
Hoyt Williamson demonstrates the proper place to prune crepe myrtles on some trees that have been poorly cut - what he calls crepe murdering. Williamson is a horticulture instructor at Calhoun Community College and the Limestone Correctional Facility.

Crepe Murder!
Decatur's annual spring sacrifice: improper crepe myrtle pruning

By Martin Burkey
DAILY Staff Writer

mburkey@decaturdaily.com 340-2441

Hoyt Williamson works at Limestone Correctional Facility, but the shocking truth is he sees more murderers running free in Decatur.

That's right.

Perfectly respectable, upstanding members of the community, maybe your neighbor, committing murder.

Crepe murder, that is.

The carnage is especially tragic in a city that has had aspirations of being "the crepe myrtle capital of the world." Late educator Frank Philpot envisioned the whole city splashed in crepe color all summer, and the annual fall sale he organized for some 15 years put more than 100,000 plants into the community.

Crepe murder is a tongue-in-cheek term among horticulturists and savvy gardeners for the severe annual decapitation of crepe myrtles perpetrated in late winter by more than a few innocent home gardeners and landscapers.

The result not only robs these tall bushes of their graceful form but also stimulates the growth of suckers, which can cause crowding and pest problems near the resulting stumps.

"It's a really knurly kind of affect," said Williamson, who teaches horticulture at the prison for Calhoun Community College. "People commonly do it because it's easy to do. What typically happens is some varieties are so vigorous, you'll wind up with blooms so heavy and stems real long that don't have a lot of support at the crotch angle off the main trunk and they wind up breaking off."

A better practice, Williamson said, is to have a range of about three feet within which you keep your crepe myrtles. If you want a 6-foot shrub, cut it to 3 feet the first year, then at 4 feet the next year, then 5 feet the next and then back to 3 feet the following year, and following the same pattern, he said.

"By cutting back at various places, you end up invigorating the tree and giving it more strength," Williamson said. "What we find is if we don't do some pruning on them, you tend to get to the point where you get a very weak, spindly plant and a small amount of new growth that translates into not nearly as many blooms. By pruning to maintain size, we actually will improve the blooming of them."

An even better way to control height, said Jeff Sibley, alumni professor at Auburn University, is to pick a variety that grows at the height you want.

There are hundreds of varieties, he said. Varieties such as Natchez, Muskogee, Fantasy, Dallas Red, Byers, Wonderful White, Watermelon Red and Biloxie grow at least 20 feet, growers say. Acoma, Catawba, Cherokee, Comanche, Hopi and Sioux reach 8 to 14 feet. Centennial, Victor, Prairie Lace or Hope grow to 3 or 4 feet.

Whacking a 20- to 30-foot tree back to 3-foot trunks ignores some of the plant's most appealing aspects, such as shape and peeling bark, Sibley said. For a municipality, hard pruning may be necessary for safety reasons along a right of way. But it also can lead to weak limbs and health problems that cut short the plant's life.

Crepe myrtles bloom on new wood, Sibley said. By pruning limbs no smaller than a pencil, the plant stays healthy and still puts out shoots that produce lots of blooms.

To trim into a tree form, horticulturists advise, remove limbs from inside the tree that cross or hang so low they hit you in the face. Remove the entire limb flush with the trunk. If you leave a stub, new shoots will grow.

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