What to do with half-dead crepe myrtle?
August 7, 2014 1:09 PM   Subscribe

After a brutal winter in PA, our 7yo crepe myrtle appears only one of two major trunks appear to be alive and well. Both branches have also split (see photos), meanwhile, new shoots are growing very quickly at the base. Apart form replacing the plant, what is the best course of action in this scenario? crepe mrytle pic1 trunk pic2
posted by Mikey51 to Home & Garden (3 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Clip off those "suckers" at the base of the trunk. Anytime you see them, snip them. If you don't, your crepe myrtle tree will start looking like a shrub. I would cut off the dead wood and let it go. It looks good and the split branches are probably harmless.
posted by Fairchild at 1:16 PM on August 7, 2014 [3 favorites]

From recent experience, cut off the dead wood, and the crepe should begin to regenerate. They are amazingly hearty trees. I am not a big fan of "topping" crepe myrtles, but they do come back after a large portion of the tree has been removed. The splitting wood is a good indication that the trunk is dead and all of the moisture has vanished.

Check out figure 9 in this link. It gives some good direction on how to properly remove the dead wood and prune.
posted by Benway at 2:54 PM on August 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Wow. That is a tough case. I am also a Crape Myrtle grower at their zone limit (Massachusetts south coast) and some in my area suffered similarly to yours last winter, although mine wasn't harmed a bit. First, it was good of you to NOT do any cutting back prematurely this spring. You now have a good idea what part of the plant is truly dead. Based on what I am seeing you could follow one of two very different plans:

One plan would be to try to preserve the existing stature of the tree as much as possible. To do this, I would cut back all the dead branches as far down to the base as they go. Don't remove all the new growth at the base yet (reason below). This plan will make your tree look lopsided or misshapen for a few years. But if it survives, it should fill out again and look decent. The splits in the trunks could be a problem because they represent access points for disease and pests. They are most likely caused by "sunscald" during winter. This is most common on thin-barked trees which includes crape myrtles. Those splits need a chance to heal. So you need to protect those trunks from winter sun by wrapping them. Remove the wrap in spring after the danger of serious sub freezing temperatures has passed. You can get tree wrap for this purpose at the big box stores. Now, keep in mind that your tree has taken a hit and it is weaker now. In this weakened state it might die completely next winter. So for this plan to work you really need a string of milder winters for the tree to reinvigorate and thicken those trunks. I have read that Crapes become a bit more cold tolerant once they mature.

The other plan is to just cut the crape back to the ground completely. It will then grow back at the base--and yours is already trying to do this because so much of the top died back. You could pick the strongest of those new branches at the base (maybe an odd number like 3 or 5) and let those grow into a new multi-trunked Crape. If you adopt this approach DO NOT do it now. Wait until next year. In fact, you can leave this open as an option by NOT cutting back the new growth at the base this year as I indicated above. Just let the new growth stay. It is possible that if the rest of the plant died next winter, the growth at the base might live, particularly if it is covered by snow during the coldest weather. You can then let those new base branches grow larger next spring and then thin them out as i suggested to start a new small tree. If it all dies back next winter, then you will start over completely with new base growth. Crapes bloom on new growth, so even if it all died back you might get some blooms on the new base growth next summer.

If all else fails and you want to rip it out and replace, then this is a chance to plant the hardiest possible crape myrtle. A plant nursery in Coatesville PA has field tested lots of Crapes. The hardiest ones that I would select are those good to at least -8 F near the top of the chart.

Good Luck!
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 3:03 PM on August 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

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