Stop Crape Myrtle Mutilation

Photo by Jeff Abt

I noticed the other day that people, even at this late date in spring, are still topping their crape myrtles. As readers of this column know, I have long abhorred this practice, so I thought I would revisit a past column written more than a decade ago. I’m also reinstating an organization formed by crape myrtles advocates. Originally, folks were invited to join this organization by dropping by the Daily Sentinel’s front office and pick up an official bumper sticker. The simple act of applying this sticker to their vehicle’s bumper automatically made them members. So, once again the Daily Sentinel is armed with a stack of stickers. Pick one up this week while supplies last and proudly support S.C.A.M.M.
What follows is a column written nearly two decades ago; unfortunately, the problem of crape myrtle mutilation continues.

Hear we go again. The violence and the destruction continues. The mutilation multiples.  I ask myself, “Is it futile to resist this entrenched societal and cultural phenomenon?” It happens annually. People, in a crazed fit of spring fever, go out and mutilate their crape myrtles. Why would anyone want to mutilate one of our most beautiful trees?  They do it for a number of reasons, none of them good or legit.
A new organization is being formed to counter this misguided horticulture practice, “Society’s Crusade Against Myrtle Mutilation” (S.C.A.M.M.). We, as an advocacy group, have decided to become more militant in our crusade, turn our rhetoric up a notch by naming names.  That’s right. I have been asked by S.C.A.M.M. to name names.  If your name is mentioned below and you are offended, we are sorry, but you have driven us to it.
The first person on the list is Miss. N. Formed. She is the most innocent of the people on the list, yet people of her kind are the most numerous and thus cause the most damage. She is good intentioned yet deceived. She has been told by many that “topping” crape myrtles makes them bloom more. Not so! Topping crape myrtles may cause larger blooms, but there will be fewer of them and the branching will be weak, floppy and droopy. The amount of bloom will not be increased. Miss. N. Formed, your trees will bloom and be quite beautiful without your help.
Shorty Woods also tops his crape myrtles. He says that he just doesn’t like tall crape myrtle trees. Shorty, please, if you want a small tree or shrub, then plant one.  Crape myrtles are available in all manner of cultivars which reach varying heights at maturity- 25’, 15’, 10’, 6’, 5’ and even minis which can be kept under 3’. It is quite appropriate to do some trimming on the shrubs and minis but not in the case of the trees. If allowed to grow to a mature height, they are one of the South’s most beautiful and colorful trees.  By the way, Shorty has a friend, Buzz Sawyer, who also tops his crape myrtles.  Buzz is a friendly soul who merely likes the sound of his chainsaw and gets nervous when football season is over at the end of January.  Buzz needs to find something constructive to do. Vacuum the house for your wife, Buzz.  Vacuum cleaners make a nice sound, but please, you and Shorty should leave crape myrtle trees alone.
Will Trim also tops his crape myrtles.  He is a traditionalist; he mutilates his trees because that’s the way it has always been done.  Will’s grandfather did it that way; his father did it that way, and he will do it that way.  I have hesitated to include Will on this list because tradition is a mighty dangerous thing to fool with.  Society can get angry when you call into question cultural morays. Will Trim has been quoted in saying, “They’ll have to pry the loppers from my cold, dead fingers before I’ll stop topping my trees.”  But ask horticulturists from coast to coast. Go ahead, ask the directors of the nation’s best and finest gardens and arboretums. They won’t endorse the practice. (Although I must admit that I have seen a few experts hedge in public because they were afraid of Will and his crowd.) So, if you get a chance speak to Will about this. Please do.  But you will need to be subtle about it; don’t get him backed into a corner. He will only want to fight you.  In a casual way, point out to him a beautiful old crape myrtle somewhere. It just might be that the magnificent branching and beautiful bark of one of these old trees will win him over.
Bill Hilly stands shoulder to shoulder with Will Trim and his kind when it comes to topping crape myrtles. He will talk about tradition and “gittin” more of those “perty” flowers when you top them.  But Bill Hilly really just cuts his trees so they don’t grow taller than the old rusting cars in his front lawn (I mean yard). Bill has an odd sense of taste and of what looks good.  “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder “ is a saying that, if it ever applied to anybody, applies to Bill. There is no accounting for taste.  The members of S.C.A.M.M. have included Bill’s name on this list for the sake of completeness. But, folks, leave him alone. When it comes to taste, to each his own.
Then there is Slim Winter of Eager Beaver Landscaping Co. December through February are hard months for landscapers, and the winter season is a tough time for them.  Slim may show up on your front porch with an empty checking account, trying to ward off poverty by butchering innocent and unsuspecting crape myrtles for money.  I know these people; an empty stomach can drive one to do terrible things. If he shows up at your door, you might ask him if he ever thought about being a politician or a lawyer. They are honorable ways to earn a buck.
There is Wanda B. Like-You. She mutilates her trees simply because everyone else does it.  Her neighbors do it, so she follows suit, and the ugliness spreads from house to house, block to block, throughout the city. It is “monkey see monkey do.”  Wanda, don’t you remember what your mother told you? “If all your friends were jumping off the cliff, that’s no reason for you to do it.” Peer pressure is a terrible thing for people like Wanda. Wanda B. Like-you, get some backbone!
Finally, Jeff Abt’s name should be on this list. That’s right, I’ve cut crape myrtles . But it was years ago when I was young, and I didn’t enjoy it.  I know better now.  Look at me. I have reformed; I’ve seen the error of my ways; and if I can do it, anyone can.
Seriously, folks. We don’t need to form a society like my fictitious S.C.A.M.M., but we should continue to spread the word that topping crape myrtles is an ignorant and “wrong-headed” horticultural practice. But if you want a STOP CRAPE MYRTLE MUTILATION bumper sticker, drop by the Daily Sentinel during office hours and pick up one. They are free. Get them while they last! They look especially good on VW buses an old pick-ups.
Crape myrtle bumper stickers!

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