Properly pruning hat-racked crapemyrtles

On a recent road trip to Dallas, Texas, I encountered an assortment of “hat-racked” crapemyrtles along the way.  It was not until December 30th when we visited the home of the Dallas Cowboys– AT & T stadium in Arlington–did  I find an attractive planting of well-pruned crapemyrtles with full canopies and thick, wide-spreading limbs. Interestingly, none of my Facebook “friends” commented on the grove of well-managed crapemyrtles behind me. (Most of them made remarks about “Jerry’s World”  and how I should have turned left instead of right to get to Sun Life stadium and the Orange Bowl instead of the Cotton Bowl.)

Hat-racking or topping crapemyrtles—or any trees–is an unacceptable practice. Sadly, it’s strictly not confined to the U.S. Recently a former student studying landscape architecture emailed me photos of topped trees in Barcelona. Sadly, no one realizes that when you cut the trunks back to an arbitrary height, you committed “crapemurder.” The large open-faced wounds that result from this mutilation do not “heal” or callus over rapidly. They provide entry points for fungal organisms that can infect and kill limbs and trunks. The butchered crapemyrtle doesn’t die immediately; a few parts die over a period of time–a limb here and a trunk there.  Eventually, the hat-racked crapemyrtle looks so miserable that it begs to be pruned at soil level.

For years I’ve advocated for the proper pruning of crapemyrtles. However, I’m convinced that people who hat-rack their crapemyrtles find beauty in crapemyrtles that resemble sawed-off broom handles.  Interestingly, these butchered trees produce spindly shoots that emerge from nooks and crannies around and below the cuts to transform its appearance to the “Medusa-look”:  a tangled, snakelike collection of loosely attached shoots and stems that bear a smattering of undersized flowers.

If you prefer to exercise your inalienable right to prune your crapemyrtles any way you want, then go ahead and do the wrong thing the right way: pollard them. Pollarding is a safe alternative to topping.

Pollarding has been practiced in Europe for centuries to produce firewood with the added benefit of controlling tree size.Several trees can be pollarded, including London planetree, linden, oak, mulberry, catalpa, and tulip-poplar.

To pollard your crapemyrtle, cut back the long, wispy shoots (1 to 3 years old and less than one inch diameter) close to their point of origin on the trunk. In the Spring, dormant buds will sprout into long, slender shoots. In subsequent years in mid- to late winter, remove the dormant sprouts as close to the original cuts as possible; they will be replaced with a brand new collection of shoots.

After many year of repeatedly cutting back the sprouts to the same position each year, swollen tissues called polllard heads or “knuckles” form. This head or knuckle is rich in starch and contains buds, callus tissue, and branch collars; it becomes the site where vigorous new shoots emerge every Spring. Unlike topped trees, pollarded trees benefit from the annual production of growth rings that keep the sprouts strongly attached to the stem or trunk.

While pollarding crapemyrtles is the healthy alternative to topping, you may be a traditionalist who enjoys thevase-shaped canopy of upward-arching branches growing from the center and long, thick limbs bearing 6- to 12-inch-long clusters of flowers in the summer. If that’s the case, then follow the instructions in the “Crape Myrtle Pruning” fact sheet at the Clemson Extension Home & Garden Information Center (hgic.clemson.edu).  You’ll find that pruning your crapemyrtle this way takes a little bit of skill and a whole lot of patience, but the rewards this summer will be priceless.

Bob Polomski    2016 ©

Pollarded crape2Pollarded crape3[1]

Crape_headed smooth4Crape_headed smooth6

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