Buzzing off the tops of these trees each winter is a mystery without end.

Steven King, Wes Craven, Jon Carpenter, and Alfred Hitchcock would all be hard pressed to surpass the horror stories perpetrated in my neighborhood right now. Decapitated corpses, the hideous remains of once-beautiful crepe myrtles, populate our yards, testifying to unspeakable violence prosecuted simply for copycat pleasure. Yes, despite more than 20 years of pleas, remonstrances, instructions, and aggrieved condemnations from me, the crime continues.

Crepe murder.

Crepe murder - poorly pruned crepe myrtle tree
Credit: Steve Bender

I spied the latest victim on my morning walk today. I closely cropped the photo above to avoid publicly shaming the owner and being sued. Just days before, a lovely crepe myrtle stood perhaps 20 feet tall, proudly displaying handsome trunks cloaked in smooth, chestnut-brown bark and destined to wear a crown of summer flowers.

It did not block windows. It did not scrape the roof. It did not impinge on the driveway. Nevertheless, the unspeakable happened. Call it "The Alabama Chainsaw Massacre."

Do not imagine for a second that such tragedy is confined to my home state, however. If you live anywhere crepe myrtles grow, it's transpiring near you as well. We see it so often that we become inured to the ugliness and shocked when a tree is permitted to grow as God intended. "When are you going to cut your tree?" folks ask.

Why do people continue to do this? Some do it because their neighbors do it and want to fit in. Others do it because they planted a crepe myrtle variety that grew too big for the space. (FYI – some crepes grow 10 feet tall, some grow 15 feet, some grow 20 feet, and some grow 30 feet. Determine the mature height before you buy.) Many say they do it because it makes the trees bloom more heavily. Yes, butchered trees indeed produce more flowers closer to eye-level than tall ones. But again, if you plant a variety that doesn't grow tall, such as the Black Diamond series, the Petite Series, and the Magic Series, you'll get eye-level flowers without any pruning.

Saving a Murdered Myrtle

Maimed crepe myrtles can be restored to their former glory if you follow these steps.

  1. As you can see in the photo, the chainsaw cut almost through some of the trunks, when the weight above tore off a strip of bark as the wood fell. I would make new cuts below the stripped bark so that the trunks are roughly equal in height. Do this now.
  2. Each cut trunk will send out a plethora of shoots from the ends of the cut. Leaving them all would create a Medusa-like mess. Thus, remove all but three shoots from each one. Make sure they're well-spaced and growing up and out. These will become the new trunks.
  3. For the next two years, remove any additional shoots that sprout from the cut ends. Also remove any side branches that grow from the saved shoots.
  4. Keep the chainsaw under lock and key.