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Moment of Nature - Feb. 27, 2015

Gilland: Crape Murder

Posted: February 26, 2015 9:52 a.m.
Updated: February 27, 2015 1:00 a.m.

Murder is a strong word and truth be known it’s not really what happens (unfortunately) when a crape myrtle, a Southern signature tree is topped, but it has become a familiar vernacular amongst plant people. If crape myrtles did in fact die when they were butchered, then the practice would stop.

Topping is otherwise known as buzz-cutting, rounding-over, flat-topping, etc. It is the indiscriminant and random cutting of branches and the trunk. This takes no skill or thought. Please don’t ever pay anyone to prune in this manner. If you or your yard maintenance person don’t know any other way of pruning, call me and I’ll help.

Now is the time of year we see unskilled and unknowing but well-meaning residents and landscapers alike perform this unacceptable and outdated method of pruning. So, why do they do it? Over the years, a variety of reasons have been presented in defense of this improper pruning method. Some say it promotes more flowering although it has not been scientifically proven. Another reason given is that the tree is too tall and the height needed to be lowered. Some folks top crape myrtles because of the “monkey-see, monkey-do” syndrome. They think, “Oh, Bob just pruned his crape myrtles, I better do mine,” without ever questioning why and some do it because that’s how their parents or grandparents always did it. If you happen to fall into any of these categories and would like to reduce your yard work load this year, please give me a call.

Why is topping bad? Let me count the ways…. First, topping of a public tree is an illegal act within the city limits. This is in accordance with our public tree management ordinance, Chapter 100: TREES. A full copy of the ordinance, adopted by Camden City Council in August 2013, is available on our city website at If you would like a hard copy of the ordinance, please contact the Public Works Department. In addition, any landscaper, business, resident, organization, etc., desiring to prune, remove or plant a tree within the public right-of-way (ROW) is required to submit a tree permit (at no cost) requesting permission to prune, remove or plant a tree. Failure to do so and acting without approval, is a finable offence -- up to $500 per tree.

Second, when live wood is topped from a tree, we are wounding it, repeatedly. These wounds are generally made to the trunk and may or may not include the largest branches. This fact is important to note because the trunk wood, which grows a new layer each spring, is oriented horizontally outwards, it cannot grow vertically upwards to close-over the exposed wound. This may result in decay fungi infecting the wood and weakening it over time.

Third, when a crape myrtle is topped, usually 50 percent or more of the live wood is removed. This removes live wood which stores water, nutrients and growth regulators (found in the twigs). As a result, the tree is severely stressed and a gazillion million shoots (OK, maybe just a gazillion) form from around the wound. This new growth depletes what energy reserves are left and coupled with the pruning cut wounds, makes the crape myrtle more susceptible to insect and disease problems. These shoots are weakly attached and more prone to breakage during storm events as well. They are also not as strong as the original branch and tend to bow low when blooms are in full flower.

Fourth, the genetic programming which controls the mature height of the crape myrtle (or any tree for that matter) cannot be altered. The tree will grow as tall as it’s programmed to grow. No amount of topping will stop it. In fact, the shoots may likely grow 2 to 4 feet in the first season after topping, which totally defeats the purpose of “lowering” the canopy in the first place. If a crape myrtle is too tall for the space, then it should be cut at the base, have the stump removed and replaced with a more appropriately sized plant. Instead of topping, a method called reduction pruning is designed to address reducing tree height without leaving stub cuts and the drastic removal of the canopy. If interested in learning this technique, contact me.

So the take home lessons are: A) if you live within the city limits and want to prune, remove or plant a tree within the street ROW, you must submit a tree permit, B) if you’re not sure if the tree is within the public ROW, contact me at the Public Works Department (425-6045) or via email ( and I’ll help determine that, C) the ordinance does not regulate trees on private property so you can do what you want, and D) ignorance of the law is no excuse, so I will be watching!


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