Crepe myrtles in winter: Sculptural drama

A glorious allee of crepe myrtles leads to a whimsical toad fountain at the Dallas Arboretum, which I visited on Wednesday.

Another view. I’d never seen a crepe myrtle allee before, and their smooth trunks and twisting branches are well suited to this kind of display. I’m sure the allee is quite beautiful in summer bloom (I wonder what color?), but I think I might prefer this bare, winter view, with the interplay of light and shadow.

(While I most often see allees only in formal public gardens, a shorter allee works great in a smaller space—like your back yard. Check out these Austinites who’ve incorporated allees into their personal gardens: Tom Spencer‘s bald cypress allee and Deborah Hornickel’s espaliered Bradford pear allee.)

Off on another tangent. If you’ve read all about “crepe murder” and can’t bear one more rant, skip this paragraph. But for anyone who isn’t sure how to care for a crepe myrtle, this is how it should look in winter: smooth trunks and branches, pruned up over time for openness and to eliminate limbs that cross and rub against each other, but with no ugly “knuckles” that come from lopping the tops off every trunk and branch. Crepe murder—the topping of a crepe myrtle in winter under the misguided assumption that it ensures good blooms the following summer—makes me cringe when I see the poor things afterward. All I can say is, Don’t do it ! Once a crepe myrtle has been topped, it will never achieve the smooth, muscled limbs that make it as striking in winter nakedness as in summer bloom.

OK, enough ranting. Take a look at the bark on this one. Spring green, gray, and cocoa add color to a trunk that looks almost like a sinewy human limb. You can’t help but run your hands over the smooth bark.

Another crepe myrtle had narrow, cinnamon-colored striations, or maybe peeling strips of bark.

I often overlook crepe myrtles in summer because they are so commonly used around here, including, just recently, in my own garden. But for winter interest, properly pruned, they’re the equal of any evergreen.

All material © 2006-2008 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

19 Responses

  1. Chandra says:

    I’ve always hated the “Crepe Murder” too. Unfortunately when we moved into our new house it came with two murdered trees that flank the start of my drive way. They have the knobby knuckles that you describe and looking at these pictures of what they should look like makes me very sad indeed.

    Chandra, if you don’t mind starting over with these trees, I’ve read that you can cut them to the ground (now is the time) and let them start over. Crepe myrtles grow fairly quickly, so you could watch this summer as new sprouts come up, selecting for 3 or 5 strong leaders and pruning back the others. These will form your new trunks. After a few years, you’ll have beautiful young crepe myrtles instead of the knobby ones that conveyed with the house. Good luck! —Pam

  2. Frances says:

    That is fantastic! It takes a lot of years to get that kind of trunk and bark though. Those look fairly mature, wouldn’t you say? The crepe murder is very popular around here, expecially in commercial properties with landscape services. The best ones, including a huge, untouched for twenty years at least, one at the back corner of our lot have been left to grow wild. We pulled the grape vine off of it and sawed just a few of the crossing branches. It is pink and beautiful.
    Frances at Faire Garden

    Another visitor from Dallas told me that this is a fairly young botanical garden, only 20 years old. So I assume that’s when the crepe myrtles were planted, or maybe even later. I think 15 or 20 years would give crepe myrtles time to achieve this level of maturity, don’t you? For the average homeowner, that means planting for the future, but even young crepes can have a nice shape and beautiful color. After 20 years, your tree must be quite large too. —Pam

  3. Chandra says:

    Thanks for the tip Pam. I’m going to discuss this with my husband. He’s one of those that doesn’t really like to prune and trim plants. He likes the wild/overgrown look, but he’s also no fan of the “crepe murder” so I may be able to convince him. We’re both still new at this and learning something new everyday. I really appreciate your input.

    You’re welcome, Chandra. I hope you’ll give me an update later if you decide to give it a try. —Pam

  4. susan harris says:

    Pam, I just did a long-overdue browse here and I’m blown away by both the photos and the writing, which are really putting me in the mood for some Texas gardens!

    Well, thanks, Susan! I hope you’ll come back again soon. Can’t wait to meet you in April at the Garden Bloggers Spring Fling. —Pam

  5. Robin says:

    Oh wow, those are stunning pictures! I’ve never seen such a magnificent display of crepe myrtles. I bet it is spectacular in the summer when in full bloom.

    Thanks, Robin. I know, I may have to revisit in summer just to see them. —Pam

  6. jodi says:

    Oh, now I can add Crepe Myrtle lust to my many sins…they don’t grow here,and when I saw that Allee, I just gasped and wanted to hug them all! Beautiful…I love the closeup photos especially, Pam, they’re marvelous.

    Are you a tree hugger, Jodi? ;-) I love these too. Thanks for your comments. —Pam

  7. Gail says:

    WOW! I have always loved crape myrtles but these photos are spectacular. The Bradford Pear allee was brilliant; the ubiquitous Bradford Pear has found its perfect form. Thanks, Gail

    Gail, I’m glad you enjoyed the photos. I’m happy to have discovered your new blog too. Thanks for visiting. —Pam

  8. Layanee says:

    Pam: Photos well worth the days’ wait! I think you are right about the allee in winter but, since I cannot grow them, would you please go back and take them when they are in bloom? LOL Ok, I will just have to imagine!

    One day I will make sure to see them in bloom. And you can be sure I’ll blog about them. —Pam

  9. Lori says:

    Oh, that allee is glorious. My next door neighbor has an ancient crape myrtle growing next to her garage, and it looks great year-round thanks to being pruned properly. I’m hoping my Nanchez crape myrtles in the backyard achieve the same look eventually.

    As for “crape murder,” have three words for you, Pam: YARD NINJAS UNITE.

    (note: this is where I make the Dr. Evil trademark gesture)

    Yard Ninjas? Can they glue the branches back on, Lori? ;-) I look forward to seeing your Natchez crepe myrtles on your blog. Their bark is just gorgeous! —Pam

  10. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    I just love the “formal” leading to the “whimsy”. And crepe myrtles are a treasure of the south to me. I got to go to
    Charleston a couple of years ago for a garden tour and was delighted to find those crepe myrtles all over the place. I was enthralled with their sculptural bark. I was surprised when told they were crepe myrtle. They don’t grow like that around
    my part of the world. Just beautiful.

    You’re right, that’s an interesting juxtaposition, Lisa. Thanks for pointing it out. And how nice that you got to visit Charleston. It’s a lovely city, and where my husband and I honeymooned, in fact. —Pam

  11. Diana Kirby says:

    Great crepe photos, Pam — I love the Allee – how wonderful it would be to just sit under it and feel the sun and the shadows on your face. I’m with you on the Crepe murder. Several of my neighbors are pruning their Primrose Jasmines into little box hedges when they were clearly intended to be long, beautiful arching vines cascading over an embankment into a grassy culvert. I just wanna knock on their doors and say, hey – you know you shouldn’t do that! (Common courtesy stops me – but barely! Part of that obsession you spoke of in Bliss’s post on GBBD!) Thanks for the trees!

    Thanks, Diana. What a shame about your neighbors’ butchering of their primrose jasmines. Lori (above) advises calling in the Yard Ninjas. :-) —Pam

  12. Carol says:

    I do like that allee and how the crepe myrtle looks in the winter. Here in Indiana, my older sister tries to grow a crepe myrtle. I think most years it dies back but it keeps growing back from the ground, so I guess it is worth it for the flowers.

    Carol, May Dreams Gardens

    How curious to grow it as a perennial. How tall does it get in your sister’s Indiana garden? —Pam

  13. Pam says:

    Wow! Those crepe myrtles – and that walkway – is just spectacular. How gorgeous.

    It was one of the loveliest features at the Arboretum. Thanks for your comment, Pam. —Pam

  14. Judy says:

    Hey, Pam! We must have gone to the same high school or something, because I am equally appalled by crepe murder! Thanks for the rant – I would have been disappointed if you hadn’t mentioned it.

    Hi, Judy! Thanks for commenting. Crepe murder—just say no! —Pam

  15. laxpat says:

    I have hated all the crepe myrtles that I have seen around California and refused to plant the one my landscape designer designated for my back yard. The flowers look like lollypops and seem artificial. Seeing the beauty of the trunks has made me have second thoughts but until I saw the allee in your photo, I never thought that crepe myrtle could be beautiful. Still in California’s central valley, the leaves turn black but stay on the tree along with the flower heads gone to seed and turned black as well. I wonder if the leaves just naturally fall off in Texas and do they trim off the dried flower heads. I would love to see a picture of the allee in bloom. I have a hard time believing that the flowers ever look good.

    Hi, Laxpat. The leaves do fall off in the winter in Austin—and indeed, in all the places in the Southeast that I’ve ever been. I have seen some varieties of crepe myrtle that hang onto their berries, but not all of them. I find crepe myrtles very beautiful when trimmed properly, but so often they’re butchered by unthinking maintenance crews. As for the flowers, I think the watermelon-red ones are overused, but I love the lavender (‘Muskogee’) and the white (‘Natchez’) varieties. —Pam

  16. Pam, this is so interesting. I’m writing an article for Oklahoma Gardener this week on crapemyrtle in the landscape, and I interviewed Dr. Carl Whitcomb about crape murder. He told me that studies show anytime we cut off branches, we are eliminating blooms because crapemyrtle plants bloom on new wood. That should stop the murder once and for all. They look terrible anyway. I love the allee. I’ve never seen such before. We just started limbing them up for trees recently.~~Dee

    I have heard that too, Dee, but it’s good to hear it again. Good luck with your article. Send us the link when it’s published. —Pam

  17. Laura says:

    I planted 6 purple crape myrtles this spring. One of the babies actually got flowers on it!! They are still slender twigs, but I can tell they have grown some. I have babied them this summer – watering with collected rain water, etc.
    Do I need to do anything special for my babies this winter. I live in Middle Tennessee.
    Thank you for your time.

    I don’t know the conditions in middle TN, Laura, but here I’d just keep a new tree mulched and watered to keep it from drying out in the winter. I’m glad you’re enjoying your crepe myrtles! —Pam

  18. Raymond Cook says:

    I have a problem with crepe myrtles sprouting all over my yard. i would like to know how to control them. Can someone help. send me e-mail Thanks

    The only thing I know to do is pull them up or cut them back, Raymond. Certain varieties seem to seed out more than others. —Pam

  19. […] really wowed me, and I took a lot of photos of their muscular trunks, which I’m saving for another post. Unfortunately, my camera battery ran low as I lavished attention on the myrtles, and so I only got […]