Leaf of the Day: Crepe or Crape, Myrtles and Murder

Probably the most interesting thing I have found out about the crape/crepe myrtle is the seemingly never ending controversy about its name. I had thought it was “crepe”rather than “crape”, because the name refers to the crinkled edges of the petals…in my mind like “crepe” paper, however …..see this and more of the discussion here at Garden Web here

” ‘Crape’ myrtle is the overwhelming choice both in botanical sources and in other dictionary sources,” said Michael Agnes, executive editor of Webster’s New World Dictionary.
The word expert explains that crape myrtle is a compound, two elements referring to one thing. “When that happens, a variant spelling is almost always associated with the compound,” Agnes said. But which vowel came first?
The first reference to crape, without the myrtle, came in 1685. Crepe first showed up in 1797, Agnes said.
“By the time someone decided to call this plant crape myrtle, crape was by far preferred,” he said. The first reference to crape myrtle showed up in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1850.

The trees are everywhere here, in every Mall, on every street corner and scattered around our apartments. While pretty enough in flower I thought the shape of the bare winter stems was more attractive, especially with their little seed pods which are still hanging on. The pale or mottled bark is also a welcome reminder of the seasons in amongst the lush but sometimes relentless green of Florida. I had intended writing about them before, as in November I had found some much bigger pods at Leu Gardens. Sadly they had mostly disintegrated but they belonged to the Lagerstroemia calyculata, which, according to the label is a relatively rare crape from Thailand.

The big and beautiful flowers of the Lagerstroemia calyculata, photo Nirmal Roberts from TrekNature here

But the controversy about the name of the crepes/crapes is as nothing when it comes to the pruning problems and “The Crape Myrtle Murder”, sounding more like an Agatha Christie mystery with Hercule Poirot at last running amok with secateurs, than a horticultural issue.

“Stop the Crape Murder”
Hideous crimes are being committed all ever Texas, some in our own front yards and many right in front of our local businesses. Unfortunately, many have turned a blind eye to the ongoing massacre. Not me! I can take it no more.”…
Such is the impassioned cry from Greg Grant’s article, more here

The terrible crime of “crape murder” occurs when the plant is ruthlessly chopped without regard to the natural branching habit It results in weakly attached new branches which cannot take the weight of flowers and reduces flower bud formation. Better it seems to underprune than overprune and never take its top off!
This is an example of an “underpruned” crape/crepe myrtle which does allows the tree to arch very gracefully.

from Houston Chronicle Gardening here

Go here to Wilson Brothers Nursery for this rather attractive printable diagram with instructions on the correct way to prune .. or is it?..it looks a bit severe to me!

This is the nearest crepe/crape myrtle to us. I took this photo today. It is a couple of yards away from the steps to the apartment and has been tidied up by the garden gang who come round periodically but, even after looking at the diagrams and reading the advice, I am still not sure if murder has been committed or not.

At Leu there are quite a few different ones including the Lagerstroemia calyculata whose pod I have drawn and another Lagerstroemia macrocarpa.
The drawings of the pods compare the size of the ordinary little street crape myrtles and the much bigger pod of the Lagerstroemia calyculata. I also made a quick sketch at Leu a couple of weeks ago because there are two crepe/crape myrtles which stand by a path nicely silhouetted against the dark green oaks. Some people I know think they are ugly in this state but I like to see their structure and tracery. Another reason not to be so quick to prune is for the sake of the birds who love the seeds..and for artists who like to draw them.


Crepe/Crape Myrtle

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  1. That Crape Myrtle near your apartment is being murdered . . . the branches that will sprout will be weak and more apt to break in the wind. A crape myrtle can be thinned or limbed up by removing some of the branches. How disturbing that a nursery is advocating topping a tree (even if it does it with a very attractive diagram)

    LOVE your sketches!

  2. Oh my. This is the second post I have read concerning the murder of these trees. I, for so long followed the example of the expert nurseries trimming these trees in our city as well. HMMMM. Something else to think about.

  3. I spell it crepe too. Better a very thin pancake than crappy. Robert Irwin used them in the Getty Garden for the bark and branching structure you talk about, as well as flowers and reliability. He was particularly delighted with them in winter, when the shapes and texture apparently correlate with the deciduous sycamores.

  4. Mary Beth.. I had a feeling this might be so!.. poor thing I will give it some affectionate and encouraging comments everyday from now on.
    Darla thanks for stopping by!..
    and E .. I had that feeling about the name too :).. since writing about them I have looked on them more fondly and they are a very lovley shape if left to their own devices a bit!

  5. This is Brent Wilson from Wilson Bros Nursery.

    Thanks for linking to our website:)

    We've been successfully pruning Crape Myrtles for 28 years now.

    Just so one (or some) of your visitors will know…Wilson Bros Nursery does not advocate "topping trees". Unlike other types of trees, Crape Myrtles do not have a "central leader" so pruning them in the way our diagram instructs does not damage the shape or health of a Crape Myrtle. We've been pruning Crape's this way for over 25 years in Georgia and have found that, in fact, this is not only the best way, but one that will create a well-shaped, very densely branched canopy that creates twice as many blooms each year! The diagram on our website shows where only one seasons new stem growth is removed druing pruning; leaving a 4-6" stub that will be strong enough to support the two branches that will emerge from just below the cut. Some may prefer to leave a longer stub but then this may not provide enough support for varieties that produce larger flower clusters? Too, when pruning the way we do a Crape myrtle will only grow 4 to 6" a year…making it much easier to manage.

    This being said, folks don't have to prune their Crape Myrtles at all. We stopped pruning the two beautiful specimens in front of our nursery after they were about 15 years old.

    Thanks again for the link!:)
    Brent Wilson

  6. Hi there Brent.. and thank you so much for the advice and interesting info about the crapes.Yours was by far the clearest diagram for pruning and I can see that pruning in some locations is needed. I wasn't sure about them when I first came to Florida.. there are probably too many of them but I do love that winter branch structure.

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