Pollarding Crepe Myrtle

Crepe myrtles with knobby "knuckles" caused by years of pollarding.

Crepe myrtles with knobby “knuckles” caused by years of pollarding

There is nothing  understated about the blooms of crepe myrtles that have been pollarded (cut back to a given point) year after year. The distinctive arthritic “knuckle” that results from this yearly abuse throws off long, vigorous shoots which end in outsize blooms in the long, hot weeks of summer. The weighty blooms drag the terminals back earthward,  giving the entire  composition something like a bottlerockets display.

pollarding crepe myrtles

Growth habit of crepe myrtles that have been pollarded

If this is to your taste, now is the time to saw away. We have former Southern Living garden writer Linda Askey to thank for coining the term “crepe murder” to describe this technique. Pollarding crepe myrtle is employed religiously in the southeastern United States, but it is used throughout the gardening world to keep blooms at a close contact distance.

When Paula and I bought our house in Forest Park, our crepe myrtles had succumbed to this pruning technique for many years. It took me five years of judicious pruning to rehabilitate those nine plants. Today, they have assumed a graceful, treelike form, and the blooms are high above the reach of the man with the saw.
For gardeners longing for crepe myrtle blooms at a shrubbier height, plant breeders have recently produced bushes short and floriferous in the usual crepe colors. These plants have made their way to most garden centers, and the plant tags show color and predicted height. These “shorties,” however, fail to offer us one of the crepe myrtles most beloved qualities: the unbeatable smooth, mottled, peeling,  sensual bark. I would gladly give a tree with this bark, this growth habit, and this fall color a prominent position in my garden. The blooms would just be a bonus on my sixteen foot tree. And, I wouldn’t touch those pruners.

Mike Rushing

Mike and Paula Rushing have been gardening in St. Clair county since 1990, and In Forest Park since 2007. A Jefferson County Master Gardener and course instructor at Master Gardening classes, Mike also volunteers weekly at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens.

3 thoughts on “Pollarding Crepe Myrtle

  1. Help! My crepe myrtles haven’t bloomed in the past 2years. I don’t “murder” them but I did give them all a good inner branch cleaning about 3 years ago. I was hoping last year they diss t bloom because of that and they would show the pretty blooms come this year. But alas, I see nothing. Is it just too early!??? What am I doing wrong ????

    • Be patient, I think they may be late blooming this year. I have not see many budding yet. If yours does not bloom, it may be they do not have enough sun if they are in the shade.

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