It started much earlier this year for some reason. Hideous crimes being committed all over Mississippi, some in our own front yards and often right in front of our local businesses. Unfortunately, many have turned a blind eye to this ever-increasing disaster. Now is the time to put a stop to it. Help me to stop . . . Crape-Murder!

The crapemyrtle, a native of China, has been called the "Lilac of the South." The most popular flowering tree in the southern United States was introduced to the U.S. by Frenchman Andre Michaux to South Carolina around 1786.

Crapemyrtles are among the toughest, most adaptable, and showiest plants that are grown in Mississippi landscapes. They bloom all summer long in our heat. They have exfoliating bark that puts on a show in its own right during the winter.

When properly chosen and maintained, crapemyrtles generally require a minimum amount of pruning. Though some pruning may be beneficial, there is a definite right way and a definite wrong way to prune these plants, with the wrong way often referred to as "crape-murder."

The practice of "topping" is one of the worst ways to "prune" a crapemyrtle. Topping involves cutting stems back at an arbitrarily chosen height rather than pruning back to a bud, side branch, or main stem. Topping crapemyrtles results in numerous vigorous shoots originating from the top of the cut stems. This ruins the natural form of the plant, which is especially obvious in winter after leaf drop. These quick growing, succulent shoots are poorly attached. The large bloom that develops on the end of each shoot makes it top heavy, often causing the shoot to flop over or break off in strong winds.

If topping is so bad, why do so many people practice it? Often it is because it is the only way they know to do it or because it is faster to do it that way. I commonly hear "they got too big!" Often it is better to cut the plant to the ground and start over, or pull it out entirely, than to butcher it.

Most people do not realize that there are many cultivars of crapemyrtles that will fit the space where they want to grow it. There are selections that have an ultimate height range from 3 feet to 30 plus feet. One of the more popular cultivars is "Natchez." This plant makes wonderful white flowers and has beautiful red exfoliating bark. What most people do not know is that this tree's ultimate size is 25 - 30 feet. A few years after planting it, they start cutting the top out to keep it in its assigned space. If the homeowner wanted a white flowering crapemyrtle that did not get as tall as their house, they can plant the "Acoma" cultivar.

When establishing new plantings, practice naturalistic pruning that maintains the shape and form of each unique cultivar of crapemyrtles. On young trees, thin out the trunks, leaving 3 to 5 permanents ones. Start maintenance early in the life of the plant by removing dead, diseased, broken, crossing, and rubbing branches to improve overall plant health and appearance. A well-trained crapemyrtle will not need yearly pruning so continue that practice only as needed to develop sound structure and enhance the plantís health.

Crapemyrtles are summer-blooming trees, producing flowers from new season stems. If you need to clear up past pruning mistakes or do maintenance, the proper time to prune is late winter or early spring (February - March) prior to new growth. Do not prune crapemyrtles in late summer or early fall because new shoots that grow may freeze if they fail to go fully dormant and cut surfaces will dry out and not heal properly.

Some of the prettiest crapemyrtles are old, unpruned plants that have been allowed to develop their natural form. Individual flower clusters are often smaller but the number of flower clusters is generally far greater than on over-pruned plants, plus the bloom season is extended.

Before you make a new crapemyrtle planting, check with your local extension service office for a list of crapemyrtle descriptions to determine which cultivar is the appropriate size and shape for your site.