How to Prune and Care for a Crape Myrtle

Updated: May 08, 2024

Find out where crape myrtle grows best and how to choose the right variety for your garden. Plus, get tips for pruning and pests to watch for.

Crape Myrtle Tree and Shrub Care Tips

Midnightmagiccrapemyrtle BaileynurseriesBailey Nurseries
Midnight Magic crape myrtle
  • Botanical name: Lagerstroemia spp.
  • Common names: Crape myrtle, crepe myrtle, crapemyrtle, crepe-myrtle
  • Hardiness zones: 6 to 10
  • Size: 3 to 30 feet
  • Soil: Moist, well-draining
  • Water needs: Moderate
  • Light needs: Full sun
  • Flower colors: White, pink, magenta, purple, red, burgundy
  • Foliage: Deciduous, some foliage color in spring and fall
  • Attracts: Bees, birds

This fast-growing (up to 5 feet per year) woody plant flowers all summer long, making crape myrtle a popular garden favorite. “Specimen trees can be great for shade in the summer,” says Tracy Harrison, Nursery Production Planning Manager at Monrovia. “Plenty of shrubs and groundcovers thrive under them and they can really anchor a landscape.” There are smaller shrub types for smaller garden spaces, too.

In the U.S., you’ll find a couple of species available, depending on your location, with multiple cultivars and varieties. The most common is Indian crape myrtle, L. indica. This species does well in heat, humidity, and drought.

Japanese crape myrtle, L. subcostata var. fauriei, is generally larger. Both may freeze to the ground in zones 6 and 7 winters, but usually regrow in the spring.

Is Crape Myrtle a Bush or Tree?

Monrovia Muskogee Crape Myrtle 6453Doreen Wynja/Monrovia
Muskogee crape myrtle

With such a wide array of sizes available, crape myrtle can be used as either a bush or a tree. “Varieties that can reach at least 15 to 20 feet are the best to tree form,” Tracy advises. “First, decide if you would like a single or multi-trunked form. From there it’s a matter of thinning and training to the desired form. Remove suckers and crossing branches up to at least head high to get that nice ‘see through’ look.”

If that seems like too much work, try using this plant as a bush or shrub instead. “I like the compact shrub-like crape myrtle, personally,” shares Tracy. “They’re a lot less work, as they’re expected to be dense plants and can be sheared back in late winter and other times during the growing season.”

Where and How to Plant Crape Myrtle

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Choose a location in full sun.

This flowering beauty needs lots of sunlight to thrive. During the growing season, it’s fairly water-hungry, but it prefers well-drained soil at all times. Tracy suggests applying a complete slow-release fertilizer just as they’re breaking dormancy in the spring.

Can You Grow Crape Myrtle in Containers?

Plant crape myrtle anywhere that receives lots of sunlight, including in pots. Choose smaller varieties for containers, and display them around the patio or pool for pops of bright summer color. You can also use smaller or intermediate size types as foundation plantings.

How to Prune Crape Myrtle

Spring Pruned Crepe Myrtle TreesJoe_Potato/Getty Images
Early spring pruned crape myrtle trees

There’s a lot of disagreement out there on the proper way to prune a crape myrtle. Some prune crape myrtles back heavily each year, trimming all branches and leaving only an unsightly stump, resulting in damage and disfigurement. While it’s true that crape myrtles flower on new growth, there’s no real need to prune them so heavily, and there’s a reason that some horticulturalists jokingly call this “crape murder”.

“Crape myrtles are extremely tough and can take pruning well,” Tracy notes. “I prefer to limb and train up a natural canopy on the tall trees. Pruning should occur in the late winter prior to the plant breaking dormancy. Thin any crossing branches, suckers, or unwanted growth that are not needed for the desired structure. If the plant has plenty of room, then only the prior year’s seed pods should be pruned out.”

Remember that pruning any plant opens it up to the possibility of disease or pests, just like a cut on human skin. Prune sparingly and carefully, following Tracy’s directions. Make a cut just outside the branch bark collar at the trunk or to the larger branch that the unneeded branch is attached to. Just try not to cut into the branch collar so the the wound can close as quickly as possible.

Crape Myrtle Pests and Diseases

While crape myrtles are generally fairly easy to grow, Tracy recommends watching out for a few pests and diseases

  • Powdery mildew: Some varieties are more resistant than others, so if you experience this fungus often in your garden, look for those bred to resist it.
  • Foliar leaf spots: These can occasionally cause leaf drop, but don’t usually affect the overall plant health.
  • Ambrosia beetles: If you see toothpick-like sawdust on the trunk or branches, you likely have an infestation. Treatment requires aggressive use of pesticides, so it may be best to cut the tree down instead.
  • Japanese beetles feed on the flowers and skeletonize the leaves. They usually do not kill healthy established trees but can make them less attractive. Since they attract pollinators, care should be taken if you decide to treat with a pesticide.
  • Aphids: Black mildew grows on aphid honeydew, and can be unsightly. Try removing aphids with a strong squirt from the garden hose, or use insecticidal soap.

Top Crape Myrtle Varieties for Your Garden

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Summerlasting Strawberry

Compact bush-types have a lot of advantages, including some with beautiful colors on the new spring foliage. “This trait alone is great for a foundation plant. but with these you get the added benefit of abundant flowers in many colors that often contrast against the backdrop of the foliage,” raves Tracy. “At Monrovia we have the Summerlasting series that I love. My favorite is a glossy red new growth compact variety named Summerlasting Strawberry.”

For tree-form crape myrtles, choose medium or large varieties like Dynamite, Muskogee, or Natchez. In zone 6, try Red Rocket for its cold-hardiness properties.

About the Expert

Tracy Harrison is the Nursery Production Planning Manager at Monrovia’s Cairo, Georgia, nursery location. He studied horticulture at the University of Georgia, and has been a Monrovia Craftsman for 30 years.

Sources

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