Right now, Grumpy is being inundated with entreaties from frantic readers about crepe myrtles that either haven't leafed out yet or seem to be sprouting only near the ground. "Is my crepe myrtle dead, kaput, done for?" they ask. "Should I prune it, kiss it, give it a little beer?"
As always, the all-knowledgeable Grump is here with the answers.
This is June. If your crepe myrtle hasn't leafed out by now, something is seriously wrong. More than likely, it suffered cold damage during the winter. This is especially likely if you live in areas where crepe myrtles are iffy, like the Mid-Atlantic states or the lower Midwest. Temps that drop below 10 degrees for any length of time will make most crepe myrtles extremely disconsolate. Some will die back at the top. Some will die back to the ground. And some will die completely.
Give It the Scratch Test
So is your naked crepe myrtle a new resident of Croak City? A simple test can tell you. The scratch test.
Use your fingernail or a knife to scratch the outer bark of a major trunk near the top. See a green layer underneath? No? Then the limb is dead from at least the scratch up. Keep scratching lower and lower on the limb until your see green. Huzzah! You've discovered life! Cut this and all other major trunks back to the topmost points where you find green.
Can't find green anywhere? Well, as General Custer observed as he was surrounded by hundreds of angry Sioux warriors, "Prospects appear bleak." Crepe myrtles can grow back from the roots. Indeed, some of the prettiest crepe myrtles I've ever seen in Birmingham were frozen to the ground 25 years ago, subsequently cut to the ground, and grew back.
But if they yours don't grow back, you'll have to replace them. Grumpy suggests choosing especially cold-hardy crepe myrtles, such as 'Dynamite' (red), 'Red Rocket' (red), 'Pink Velour' (pink), 'Catawba' (purple), and 'Acoma' (white), so this hopefully won't happen again. That's 'Red Rocket' in the photo.
From the Ground Up
What if your crepe myrtle is mostly dead, but green shoots are sprouting from the bottom? Cut off the dead top and let the shoots grow. They'll grow faster than a congressman's nose. Select 4-5 well-spaced ones to become the new main trunks and cut off the rest. Your crepe myrtle will grow back free-of-charge and may even bloom this summer. Cowabunga, dude!