Cotinus spp. -- Would You Prefer Smoking, or Non?
By Sara Malone, Sonoma County Master Gardener
Have you ever seen a smoke bush in flower? The tiny flowers, arranged in filamentous panicles, are almost ready to bloom Countywide, and when they do, the bushes look like they are wreathed in clouds of smoke! Their unusual flower display, combined with striking foliage, make Cotinus a wonderful accent plant or addition to a shrub border. In fact, the foliage is so beautiful that I generally forgo the flowers in order to show the foliage at its best. Smoke bushes are deciduous, beginning to leaf out mid-April here in Sonoma County, dropping their leaves in mid-late December. Those eight months give you gorgeous new foliage, arresting floral display, lovely post-flowering foliage and structure and stunning fall color. For that, I forgive Cotinus its four month off-season!
Cotinus are trouble-free, requiring full sun to part-shade (foliage color is generally better with more sun; in hotter inland parts of the County some afternoon shade may be helpful) and will grow in most any type of soil, even my Petaluma adobe. They thrive on regular garden water, but do fine with far less. I’d stop short of calling them drought-tolerant, but established plants can definitely be called low water. No insects seem to bother them. While the literature lists them as susceptible to verticillium wilt, I have never experienced it with my plants and some are almost 15 years old, even as other species in the garden have succumbed to this disease.
Cotinus are large shrubs, reaching 15ft if left unpruned. My fingers always itch to get at them, though, as they are amenable to all kinds of sculpting, depending on your garden conditions. I have many specimens in my large garden, and no two look alike. How should you prune yours? If you want a:
Large, globe-like bush – no pruning is necessary. This is my least favorite way to treat the shrub as it lacks structure, gets quite large and the new foliage and flowers are mostly above eye level and hard to enjoy. However, it is still lovely.
Small, globe-like bush with no flowers but gorgeous leaves – coppice (cut entire bush to about 12” in early spring before bud break) your plant every year and the foliage will be huge, gorgeous, and down where you can see it. Downside? No flowers, as Cotinus blooms on old wood, which you have just cut off. A non-smoking smoke bush! Compromise? Coppice it every OTHER year and then you keep the plant a manageable size and still get to enjoy the flowers periodically. This is what I do with most of mine.
Small tree – This is a lovely way to grow Cotinus, especially if you have deer, who like those lovely leaves as much as we do, albeit for different reasons. Put a wire fence around your young plant, and after it has been in the ground for a couple of years, begin to ‘head up’ the shrub, removing lower branches and selecting two to three stalks that will become the multiple trunks of your small tree. Continue to shape this way until the leaves are out of reach of the browsing deer, and you can remove the fencing and the plant can take care of itself. Matanzas Creek Winery in Santa Rosa has some lovely examples of Continus pruned this way.
There are many different Cotinus available in the nurseries. Most are varieties of C. coggygria. My favorites are ‘Grace’, which has huge, maroon leaves and spectacular fall color – the foliage turns a deep salmon pink; ‘Ancot’, which has chartreuse leaves that turn yellow in autumn and is sometimes sold under its patented name ‘Golden Spirit’; and Cotinus obovatus, which, unlike most other Cotinus, which hail from China, is our American version! It is a larger shrub with slightly glaucus green leaves that turn stunning colors of orange, rust and yellow in fall. I have recently planted C. coggygria ‘Pink Champagne’, which ostensibly has pink flowers (smoke) but I haven’t yet seen it in action. Its summer foliage is green, it remains to be seen whether its fall display matches the others, but I am optimistic.
Cotinus provides three seasons of drama in your garden with low maintenance. How many plants can you say that about?
Cotinus coggygria varieties are available at nurseries throughout the County such as Cottage Gardens, Sonoma Mission Gardens, Emerisa, Harmony Farm Supply and Urban Tree Farm. C. obovatus is available by mail order from Forest Farm in Oregon.