Monday, February 2, 2015

I am an accomplice to murder

There is a heinous crime that is being committed in serial fashion in gardens and landscapes all over this area, all over Texas, indeed all over the South, at this time of year. It involves the brutal amputation of the tops of certain flowering trees called crape (some prefer crepe) myrtles, without regard to their form and growth habit. 

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. 
  

12 comments:

  1. There are pruning ways of rejuvenating old trees after those initial cuts you made that are better than cutting back to the same knobs every year.

    If you don't like this year's look, next year you could cut the whole thing to the ground and start over when new shoots put out.

    Crape Myrtles are very forgiving and you can do any number of things with and to them. Digging suckers from around the bottom and starting new plants is easily done, too.

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    1. Yes, I would never consent to the yearly "murdering" that is a popular practice here. I would prefer to take the tree out and start over with another if this year's pruning doesn't work out. You're right - crapes are very forgiving and there are differing strategies that can be utilized. I'm open to them.

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  2. Glad you put the word out about crape murder. I've been told that crape myrtle lifespan is between 20 & 40 some-odd years, depending on the variety. Hope your surgery works.

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    1. Yeah, my tree is definitely in its mid to late years, which is one of the reasons that I agreed to this drastic surgery to see if we could lengthen its life. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

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  3. It doesn't look pretty, Dorothy, but I hope it gets better after the "murder".

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    1. I'll show you how it looks in June. That will begin to reveal the verdict.

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  4. When I visited my daughter's new home in Dallas for the first time last year, she wanted some help with the landscaping, which I eagerly agreed to. The first thing I had to do was to do some detective work to identify all the plants. Two of the "shrubs" in front of her house had me baffled until a neighbor told me they were crape myrtles that had been severely cut back. That was my first understanding of the term "crape murder." I think you had a valid reason for cutting yours back, though, Dorothy; I hope it recovers nicely for you this season.

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    1. Fingers crossed, Rose! I do have four other crapes in various spots of my garden and they are happily unpruned and I hope to keep them that way.

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  5. It doesn't look too bad at all Dorothy, and hopefully it will reward you with lots of healthy new growth and blooms this summer.

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    1. That's what I'm hoping for, Jayne. Time will tell.

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