Of Oaks and Crape Myrtles

I’ve driven (actually ridden) many miles looking at live oaks and red oaks and their erratic leafing patterns since the February deep freeze.

I’ve spent many hours looking at, walking around, and flexing crape myrtle twigs and trunks in the past several weeks.

And now I’m spending many hours speaking and writing answers to gardeners’ questions about what should be done with these plants that are still not looking up to prime.

Here’s where I am…

Facebook friend Frank G. posted this photo of a red oak to my page earlier this week. I urged that the tree be left alone – not removed just yet. (I also suggested removing the “mulch volcano” that raises the planting grade well above the tree’s root flare. Note, too, that his other tree is slightly off plumb. It really ought to be dug and re-set in next winter’s dormant season.

With oaks, they are still continuing to leaf out. Yes – I get it that your neighbor’s tree looks perfect, while your tree just 100 feet away is almost bare. But if I hadn’t seen that very same thing 100 times over, and if I hadn’t seen perhaps 85 of those seemingly dead trees suddenly pop back to life and start putting out leaves… If I hadn’t seen all of those “miracles,” then I’d be giving the go-ahead to cut the dead-looking trees down. But I can’t do that just yet.

I’m not the least bit convinced that these lethargic oaks are dead. I’ve said it before, and I’m going to say it again: there is no reason to rush. Oaks aren’t going to fall overnight. Leave them in place another few weeks. What will it hurt? Professional tree people feel that they’re going to leaf out and grow as the weather turns warmer. If we’re wrong, hey – you were going to cut them down anyway.

Continued Below

Oh, and don’t let any door-knocking tree guy start hacking around on your shade trees. Contact a certified arborist. Someone who knows what they’re doing. Someone who’s familiar, for example, with oak wilt and why you don’t prune while that fungus is active (spring and early summer).

Note: A blue-ribbon panel of certified arborists, nursery leaders, foresters, Extension horticulturists and garden communicators has formed to delve into the issues with oaks. Watch for more information soon.

But, what about those crape myrtles…
Crape myrtles are a different story. We’re beginning to formulate a game plan for them.

Facebook friend Kaye G. posted this and several other photos of an important crape myrtle to her asking how best to save it.

I met with six outstanding nursery professionals at the World Collection Park (of crape myrtles) in McKinney this past Monday evening. We looked at probably 300 plants and spent the best part of two hours discussing how each plant should be handled.

Based on the dozens of photos folks have posted on my Facebook page in the past month from all over the state I feel like what we have in that park is pretty representative of what most of Texas is seeing.

This crape myrtle is completely healthy and will not need to be trimmed. However, it does have multitudes of sprouts coming up from its base. These would make outstanding cuttings, but we don’t need them, so they will simply be removed so that all the plant’s energy can be put into flowers and top growth.

1. Many of the plants were not impacted by the cold. They look completely normal. Only regular care is called for.

This crape myrtle has frozen to the ground. Old trunks will be cut with a chain saw to allow the sprouts to become the new trunks. The best 3-5 will be selected. I’ll have details here next week.
From left, Bram Franklin (Crape Myrtle Trails of McKinney board member and chair, horticulture committee; Roundtree Landscape, Dallas), Elizabeth Smidt (CMT board member and registered landscape architect with Great Gardens, McKinney), Adrian Muehlstein (CMT board member, chairman-elect Texas Nursery and Landscape Association, Southwest Nursery of Carrollton) and Roger Smidt (CMT board president and partner in Great Gardens, McKinney). Not in photo Jenny Moots (CMT board member and manager of Calloways Nursery North Plano), Susan Owens (CMT board member and former CMT executive director) and Neil Sperry.

These dwarf crape myrtles have frozen back to the ground and should be cut to within 2 inches of the soil line now. That will allow the plants to expend all of their resources on producing new top growth this season.

2. Some of the plants appear to be completely dead from the ground up. Their trunks are dry. Their branches are dry and show no signs of moist, green tissues when scratched. Their small branches and twigs snap when they’re bent. And, very importantly, most of those plants have strong sprout growth coming up from their bases.

Those plants should be cut back to within a couple of inches of the soil line, and those sprouts should be trained as the new trunks. I will have complete details on how to do that right here next week, but you can begin by getting the old, dead trunks cut away as soon as possible.

This crape myrtle looks like it’s struggling, but on closer inspection we could see buds developing and new shoots emerging along the stems. We decided to take no action yet on plants that look like this.

3. Many of the plants have some limited top growth and generous numbers of sprouts coming up. This is the group that is giving us headaches because we can’t tell yet whether the tops are vigorous enough to recover and grow, or whether we will need the sprouts. We are leaving both the tops and sprouts in place for two more weeks at which point we will check that group once again.

My suggestion to you at this point is that you follow this same line of thinking. You can easily enough tell the crape myrtles that are doing perfectly.

You can easily enough tell those that have died to the ground. Go ahead and prune their dead trunks back to 1-2 inches, leaving as many of the sprouts as you can untouched. I’ll have complete details of how to retrain them right here next week. It’s easier and quicker than you might think.

And if you’re unsure, just wait. Those plants will help you make the decision if you give them just a little more time.

Posted by Neil Sperry
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