It is a act that is performed, presumably, to encourage more blooms, though I'm not sure there is really any research to support that reasoning. What it does is to truncate a tree that normally prefers to grow in a perfectly lovely free-flowering habit.
|Here's what I mean. This is a crape myrtle in my backyard. The picture was taken in summer three years ago, before the problems that I will shortly relate. This particular tree has stood here for more than 25 years, so it is a relatively old tree, and up until recently it had been a beautiful feature of my garden. In all its years in the landscape, the tree had never been pruned except to remove dead limbs or suckers.|
The practice of topping these trees every winter is referred to by horticulturists as "crape murder" and it seems like an apt description. Although it doesn't actually kill the trees - crapes are very hardy and can take a lot of punishment - it certainly does change the course of their lives, forcing on them a different identity.
Not only does it change the form of the tree, removing their tops removes their seed heads which are an important source of food for birds in winter.
Goldfinches, in particular, love the seeds of the crape myrtles, but they are also utilized by many members of the sparrow family and Cedar Waxwings, to name just a few of the tree's winter visitors.
Through the years, I have joined in the condemnation of the crime of crape murder. I certainly never thought I would be an accomplice to it. But over the last couple of years, my old crape myrtle had developed some problems, and, by last summer, much of the top part of the tree, especially in the center, was dead. Very far from being a beautiful feature of the garden, it had become an eyesore.
I was in a quandary as to what to do about it. Maybe I should just have it removed and plant something else, but I have a sentimental attachment to that tree.
When we first moved here 27 years ago, our backyard was a wasteland. The only things growing there were the old magnolia tree (still there) and a diseased apple and peach tree (both long gone). Within the first year or so after we moved in, I found this seedling crape in the backyard where it had been planted, apparently, by the birds. I dug it and moved it to what I considered a more salubrious spot and it had flourished there ever since. It is a tree that is greatly loved by the birds in my garden. I really didn't want to see it go, but drastic action was called for.
After much debate with myself, I decided perhaps the best solution might be to take a page from the murderers' handbook - take out the top of the tree that was dead or diseased. And so I called on my man with the saws and told him to have at it. This is the result.
While it isn't as drastic as some of the pruning jobs that I see around town, I'm afraid it would be considered by those Aggie horticulturists as a murder.
So I confess. I'm guilty as charged. I've "murdered" my tree in an attempt to be kind and try to save it. Would it have been kinder still to remove it altogether? Have I simply tortured my tree to no purpose? Time will pass its judgment on my crime.