What Killed My Crepe Myrtle?

June 2, 2011 | By | Comments (50)

Crepe Myrtle 008
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!



  1. Steve Bender

    From your description, I’m guessing your crepes have a fungus called powdery mildew. You can control it by spraying according to label directions with neem oil or Natria Disease Control.

    July 10, 2014 at 2:53 pm
  2. AJHome

    Hello there — I would love some of your insight on Crepe Myrtles. I have a beautiful multi-trunk in my front yard. For the two years prior to this one, it got bright green and had lots of pink flowers. This year, the green turned to reddish brown very early, and many of the leaves even have a greyish or whitish hue to them. Also, while all the other crepe’s in the neighborhood flowered profusely 2-3 weeks ago, mine just flowered this weekend, and only a little bit. Much less than before. I’ve talked to two gardeners, one said I’m maybe watering it too much, the other one said I’m maybe watering it too little. Any thoughts? It did go through about a year when I wasn’t watering it at all, but I’ve been watering fairly regularly now for the past 6 months. If it helps to know, the tree and I are located in Southern California.

    July 7, 2014 at 9:04 pm
  3. Steve Bender

    Help in PA,
    The winter cold has caused dieback. Prune back your crepe myrtle to the new growth.

    June 12, 2014 at 2:45 pm
  4. Help

    I live in Pennsylvania. We just had a severe winter. It is the first week of June and only about 30 percent of my tree has leaves. Nothing at the top but more and more are popping. What to do.

    June 12, 2014 at 12:52 am
  5. Steve Bender

    Cut them back to live woods and let the trunks grow back.

    June 3, 2014 at 2:29 pm
  6. Steve Bender

    I don’t think it’s anything to worry about.

    June 3, 2014 at 2:29 pm
  7. adam

    I have 4 CM’s in my back yard, two are mature and two were planted in the spring of 2013. I live in Kentucky and we had a very long hard/cold winter with a lot of snow and ice. This spring my CM’s have not leafed out and only have shoots coming from the bottom. I have tried the scratch test and have no green on the old trunks, should I just cut them all off and restart with the shoots? if so should I cut all the way down at the bottom?

    June 2, 2014 at 12:37 pm
  8. Carol Evans

    My 1-yr old CM (Natchez) has scarring on the trunks and some of the limbs. We have not injured the tree in any way. What is causing the scars? They are compartmentalized, but of concern. Do we have an insect or fungal issue, maybe?

    June 1, 2014 at 12:28 pm
  9. Steve Bender

    So many things could have happened to cause this that I can’t tell you for sure. Watch the new one closely. If it starts to show stress, you’ll know the spot it’s in is the reason. GG

    May 17, 2013 at 7:03 am
  10. Anita

    This is added to the previous comment. My husband cut the crepe myrtle down and the base of the crepe myrtle was part purple. It was planted next to a side walk and a water faucet. Do you think it got too much water or what happened to it. All of the other ones that we have are doing fine. We just planted another one in the same spot and we don’t want it to die.

    May 10, 2013 at 10:38 am
  11. Anita Bennett

    Our crepe myrtle didnt come back this year. It is about 15 yrs old. My husband starting it down and never found any green on the trunk but it was sort of purple. We have just planted another one in its place. Do you know what caused this?

    May 10, 2013 at 8:46 am
  12. Steve Bender


    G’day! From your description, it sounds like the plant is dead. To see whether any part of it is still alive, scratch the bark to see if you can find a green layer underneath. Cut back the plant to the highest point on a trunk where you can find green. FYI, splitting trunks in your area is probably due to drought.

    February 18, 2013 at 8:27 am
  13. elizabeth

    a friend of mine has a crepe myrtle that has split from the ground up and the top has died off and we are just wondering what might have caused it


    central Victoria Australia

    February 12, 2013 at 12:43 am
  14. Steve Bender

    Yes, you could have killed it with too much fertilizer, but maybe it isn’t dead. Scratch the bark to see if you can find green underneath. If you can, that part of the plant is alive. If you can’t, cut back the plant to the highest point at which you find green.

    January 23, 2013 at 1:29 pm
  15. Kent

    We just moved here to Texas from Ohio. Our land scape company sugested that we plant three red crete myrtle’s in our front yard. The Crete’s get full sunshine all day long. I noticed this past October that one particular crete turned the color of a bark brown to a black in color just at the weather was cooling off into the mid to high 80’s . The Crete iwll be three years old this july. The other two Crete’s have a normal color of a light brown to a tan. Could I have killed this plant with to much fertlizer?

    Thanks in advance and new to Texas

    January 22, 2013 at 2:56 pm
  16. Steve Bender

    The reason the leaves are turning black is a fungus called black mold. It grows atop sweet, sticky honeydew secreted by feeding aphids. To kill the aphids, spray your trees (both upper and lower leaf surfaces) now with horticultural oil according to label directions. You can get this at garden centers.

    September 21, 2012 at 2:38 pm
  17. Marilyn Dillow

    I have a CM that the leaves are turning black and something has been eating on the blooms. I have tried everything what can I do!!


    September 15, 2012 at 6:59 pm
  18. Grumpy Gardener (His Benevolence)

    My guess is it got nipped by the frost. Remove the dead tips now. If it is healthy, it should recover.

    June 10, 2012 at 10:18 am
  19. Jackie

    I planted a small 6 foot crepe myrtle last year. It had beautiful bronze foliage and pretty blooms it appeared healthy. This year it leafed out a bit and seems to have stopped. There are dead tips on some branches due to heavy frost during the winter (Central California coast). Is it dying? Should I remove the dead tips now, and what can I do to save this struggling baby?

    June 4, 2012 at 10:57 pm
  20. Grumpy Gardener (His Benevolence)

    It’s hard to say what the problem is. It could be a cold winter, physical damage to the bark around the base, use of weedkiller, or too much water. With so many leaves dropping, I’m sorry to say the prognosis isn’t good.

    May 28, 2012 at 4:00 pm
  21. Melanie

    I have a crape myrtle that has Lichen. All of my CMs are about 5 years old and used to be thriving and beautiful. I know this is a sign of a declining CM and this crape has been doing poorly the past two years. It started to leaf out in late spring but now, in May, all of the leaves are turning orange/yellow and are dropping. Hardly any leaves left. The CM is in a bed with perennials surrounding it but they are all doing fine. What can I do to stop the declining CM? I have noticed my other CMs are doing the same thing in another area of my yard but they are not as bad as this one. Why would they do well for a few years and then start to decline? Please advise . . .

    May 25, 2012 at 12:23 pm
  22. Grumpy Gardener (His Benevolence)

    Don’t know what caused it, but your crepe myrtle has died to the ground. A sudden freeze may be responsible. It will grow back from the roots, but you might as well cut down the dead part.

    May 21, 2012 at 9:13 am
  23. Jim

    Our CM is about 30 ft tall and 30 yrs old with little trimming over the years. Location is LA basin with mild winter. No leaves have appeared yet this year except for a couple of shoots at the base. A 5 year old specimen nearby and all the neighbors’ trees are already covered with leaves. I’m seeing vertical cracks in the trunk spaced 1-2″ apart around the entire circumfrance extending from the ground up to the branches about 5 ft in lenght, 1-2″ deep, and 1/16-1/2″ wide. The interior looks a bit dry. I’m thinking this can’t be a good sign. It scratches with a little green but nothing like the deep green of the younger tree. Does this sound like time to fire up the chain-saw? Have you ever heard of a CM croaking this way? It gets plenty of water.

    May 19, 2012 at 1:12 pm
  24. Grumpy Gardener (His Benevolence)

    It shouldn’t have made any difference. Scratch the bark to see if you can find a green layer underneath. If you can, the plant is still alive. Give it a few more weeks to leaf out again.

    April 30, 2012 at 7:21 am
  25. Carrie

    We had a crepe mytle that hadn’t been cut in years. Our Arborist came out later than expected and the tree had already started leafing. He said it didn’t matter and cut it back anyway. Its been nearly a month and we haven’t seen any new growth. Could he have killed it?

    April 25, 2012 at 1:32 pm
  26. Grumpy Gardener (His Magnificence)

    The burned leaves will fall off, but new leaves will emerge and your tree will be fine.
    It doesn’t sound good. I would give it a few more weeks, but if it doesn’t leaf out by then, it’s probably dead.

    April 17, 2012 at 11:37 am
  27. Sue

    Imhave a 1 year old crepe myrtle. It started to have green buds and now it’s black and no buds. What is this and what does it mean?

    April 14, 2012 at 8:29 pm
  28. Margie

    We had a freeze for two nights, and now the new leaves and buds on my crepe myrtles are brown and brittle. Does this mean they died, or if not, won’t have any leaves or flowers this spring? What can I do to save them?

    April 14, 2012 at 1:10 pm
  29. Grumpy Gardener (His Benevolence)

    You have two choices.
    1. Cut the tree to the ground and start over.
    2. Cut off the knuckles. Many shoots will sprout from each cut end. Select one to save and remove the others. The one you save for each trunk will become the new extension of that trunk.

    April 9, 2012 at 7:48 am
  30. Mike

    I have a CM that has 6 main branches and I think last years drought damaged 2 of them, they are sprouting leaves like the others. Also I have bad knuckles below the branches, the truck below the knuckles are about 5″ in diameter, if I cut below them will the shoots look foolish (small on big trunk)? Should I just take it to the ground?

    April 6, 2012 at 4:04 pm
  31. Grumpy Gardener (His Magnificence)

    I don’t think it likes where it’s growing. Try transplanting it to a different spot.
    No, it’s not too late to prune.

    March 29, 2012 at 2:17 pm
  32. Tori

    My cm has just started getting a few green leaves. I just moved here (Texas) and want to prune the tree so it doesn’t cover the front of my house this summer. Is it too late?

    March 28, 2012 at 8:01 pm
  33. Victor

    I planted a Red Dynamite crape myrtle 4 years ago and the thing is simply not growing at all! Sometimes less than a foot a year! No diseases I can see and enough water( good drainage). I live in Northern Virginia. The leaves are not profuse and plentiful like I see in other myrtles in the area. After 4 years, it looks like a small shrub – bought it at about 4 ft high. Still looks the same. What could be wrong?

    March 27, 2012 at 1:43 pm
  34. Grumpy Gardener (His Magnificence)

    You did exactly the right thing. Each of the cut branches will soon put out a number of shoots from the end. Cut off all but 1 or 2. These will become the new main branches. Your crepe myrtles will look a lot better in a couple of years.

    February 7, 2012 at 11:16 am
  35. CC

    I just cut my CMs back. there were these awful looking ‘knuckles’ on them, so I cut them back below that point. did I do the wrong thing? Or will it just take a while for them to get into shape again?

    February 6, 2012 at 6:46 pm
  36. Grumpy Gardener (His Benevolence)

    Yes, you can prune them now. Since they are only 10 feet tall, they don’t need much. I’d probably only remove crossing or rubbing branches and branches that grow through the middle of the plant and not outward. If you’ll type “crepe myrtle” into the search box on my blog, you see lots of posts about how to properly prune these trees.

    December 22, 2011 at 10:47 am
  37. Norman Eldridge

    My crepe myrtles are 10 ft tall. Can I prune them in Dec temp. 30-40. How much should I prune from the top.

    December 18, 2011 at 9:07 pm
  38. Mike

    Good Day!
    We planted squash this year and were decimated by squash bugs. We have read your suggestions for killing same, but have a question.
    We have been told that Squash bugs live in Crepe Myrtle trees. We have several near the cold frames and wonder how far away from the trees do we need to plant the squash?
    Thanks for your help!

    November 21, 2011 at 6:28 pm
  39. Grumpy Gardener (His Benevolence)

    I would wait to prune until after the leaves fall off. Then prune them as you described. They’ll probably be OK. I like to prune crepe myrtles in February, but you can prune yours earlier if you want.

    November 2, 2011 at 8:41 am
  40. Allison

    We had a landscaper plant 4 CM trees on a hill in our yard. We are new home owners, and therefore, new to landscaping. Out of those 4 CM’s one bloomed and did very well. The other three appear to have some very dead limbs but did leaf out a bit. We are hoping we do not have to replace the trees, so I would like to try the scratch method you described earlier and cut the limbs to the green. Is this a good time to do this or should I leave well enough alone until the winter? About what month is best to prune? Thank you so much!
    -Allison, North Carolina

    October 31, 2011 at 12:53 pm
  41. Grumpy Gardener (His Magnificence)

    Your only choice is to leave the crepe myrtle alone or remove it. Transplanting it at this stage is not really a viable option.

    October 20, 2011 at 3:38 pm
  42. Sonja

    GG: I have a CM, approx 30y/o planted up right next to the garage. How large is the root system on an older tree & can it be safely moved & transplanted? Or should I leave well enough alone? Thanks for such great advice.

    October 18, 2011 at 11:09 pm
  43. Eddie

    Thanks so much GG! You are indeed awesome. Exactly what I needed to know. Good winter project for me too.

    August 6, 2011 at 10:29 pm
  44. Grumpy Gardener (His Magnificence)

    It’s never too late to think about getting your crepe myrtle in shape, but don’t do it now. What until this winter, when the tree has lost its leaves. It’s easier to see then what should be done. What you’ll want to do is remove some of the interior trunks to thin out the center. Cut them either to the ground or down to where they meet another trunk. Don’t leave stubs. I always say you’ll know you’ve done it right when a bird can fly through the middle. Here’s a link to a pruning story I did that should help you: http://grumpygardener.southernliving.com/grumpy_gardener/2009/02/what-concerns-p.html

    August 5, 2011 at 1:50 pm
  45. Eddie

    I have a huge pink crepe myrtle in my yard. It has never been pruned with the exception of getting rid of some broken limbs. My problem is that it consists of about 12 or 14 individual trunk shafts about 2 to 3 inches in diameter each. It’s about 16 feet tall and about a 15 to 18 foot spread. Is it too late in it’s age to start trying to cut back to make it appear more like a tree with a single or only one or two main trunk shafts and how do I approach that? Thanks for your help

    August 2, 2011 at 11:18 am
  46. Grumpy Gardener (His Benevolence)

    This is typical winter damage. Just prune the dead branch off.

    July 24, 2011 at 11:47 am
  47. Kenneth Maahs

    I have a beautiful lavender CM in my front yard in King of Prussia, PA. It grown off one main shaft(trunk) out of the ground. We had a fairly bad winter and this spring one of the main branches (a central one) did not come back. To this day it is a dead main branch off the central trunk. Why would that happen when the other four or five main branches off the single main one did come back early and beautifully?

    July 23, 2011 at 11:38 am
  48. Grumpy Gardener (His Magnificence)

    What you describe sounds like lichens. They are harmless and require no action.
    I have never heard of anything eating crepe myrtle flowers. So the Grump is stumped. The only advice I can give you is make sure your plants receive plenty of sun and have well-drained soil. If the leaves look wilted in the early morning, water thoroughly. Keep in mind that weather can affect the blooming, including delaying flowering. Also, some dwarf crepe myrtles good for containers don’t flower very heavily.

    July 22, 2011 at 2:58 pm
  49. Elizabeth L. Zambrano

    What is eating my crepe myrtle flowers? From one day to the other, it was blooming beautifly, and then one morning I discovered all the flowers were gone? What the heck is happening? Why does this happens, I am so frustrated, because I have two other trees one in a container and one the ground and they have not bloomed at all. I did read that drought affects them, but what about the other one that is also planted on the ground and did bloom and whatever ate the beautiful flowers on it? I am super confused???? I would appreciate any suggestions or advise. Thank you!

    July 20, 2011 at 4:18 pm
  50. Sonja

    My Crepe Myrtle appears to have a grey fungus or something growing on it’s limbs/trunk. Not sure if it’s hurting the tree yet, but how do I get rid of this?

    July 19, 2011 at 11:59 pm

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