What Killed My Crepe Myrtle?

June 2, 2011 | By | Comments (61)

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. Kim


    July 9, 2015 at 3:00 pm
  2. Steve Bender


    The best things you can do for your new crepe are to put down mulch around the base to keep down weeds and keep the soil moist and also to water thoroughly whenever you see wilted leaves in the morning.

    July 9, 2015 at 2:54 pm
  3. Kim

    Steve, thank you so much for responding. I just wanted to follow up that my Rhapsody leafed out substantially since I wrote you. It’s still shorter than the year before, but it’s definitely bouncing back and currently has tons of blooms. Fingers crossed we have a milder winter this year. Especially since I just planted a Muskogee on the front lawn this year! Any advice on protecting a newly planted crape? Thanks again for all your help!

    July 6, 2015 at 9:17 am
  4. Steve Bender


    I’d say there’s a small chance that any branches that haven’t leafed out yet will do so, but you can wait a couple of weeks. If nothing happens by then up top, cut it back to the shoots at the base.

    May 16, 2015 at 7:55 am
  5. Grumpy Gardener


    You’re not doing anything wrong. Unusually cold winter temperatures are the culprit. Hopefully, this year won’t repeat. Crepe myrtles usually get hardier as they get older.

    May 16, 2015 at 7:53 am
  6. Kim

    Steve! Help! My Rhapsody in Pink crape died a bit from the cold winter here in MD last year. I cut it back to the new growth, it was shorter than the year before but otherwise looked good. I thought for sure it would bounce back this year but it’s only about…20% leafed out? It’s sporadic with one trunk not showing any signs of leaf buds. I did the scratch test and did a lot more trimming (just a few minutes ago actually). Is there any reason, even with some green showing in the bark, why it’s still so empty looking? Is there still time for new leaves to emerge or could it potentially grow in these areas next year? Or should I just give up and cut down to the grown (new shoots are popping up). It is such a sad looking tree right now (this is it’s third year in the ground, btw).

    May 14, 2015 at 2:32 pm
  7. Linda Cordes

    I live in the St. Louis area I planted for crape myrtles about four years ago they grew well the first year after the winter they grew back from the bush that was still there but the next spring only grew from the ground we had had some very low temps that winter. But this spring after a winter that was not bad they still grew from ground. Very disappointed. Not sure if I’m doing something wrong.

    May 9, 2015 at 8:18 am
  8. Steve Bender


    There are so many possible reasons for a tree dying that I can’t say what’s doing it for sure without examining the tree in person.

    September 17, 2014 at 1:33 pm
  9. Steve Bender

    If your plant is oozing sap, it may have borers. Borers can only be killed by treating the tree with a systemic insecticide the plant absorbs, like Bayer Advanced 12 Month Tree & Shrub Insect Control. However, other things may cause the oozing too, so you may want to have a local tree expert examine the plant.

    September 17, 2014 at 1:28 pm
  10. Karen

    I have the same problem with my crepe myrtle. It is oozing sap like crazy and some of the tree is dying. I have trimmed off the dead limbs and my neighbor said to feed it with some epsom salts water which has helped some. I have given it two treatments so far. The next thing I am going to try would be to put a plant food stick in the ground beside it. I live in North Texas and the weather is hot in the summer and we usually have mild winters.

    September 16, 2014 at 11:56 am
  11. Kathy isaac

    I have 2 big crepe myrtles in my front one is beautiful and the other one 1/2 dying what do I do !!!?????thank u

    September 10, 2014 at 8:12 am

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