Cotinus coggygria (Smoke Tree)
One of the more fanciful sites in the summer garden is a smoke tree in full flower. Individual tiny blossoms in airy, filamentous panicles appear wreathed in clouds of pinkish smoke. Cotinus grows in nearly any well-drained soil. It develops brightest color in full sun and requires only infrequent, low water once established. No insects or diseases are known to cause problems.
Tree or Shrub
The unusual floral display, combined with striking foliage, makes Cotinus a wonderful specimen plant or addition to a shrub border.
- Left to develop with no interference from the gardener, cotinus naturally grows as a very large shrub, reaching 15 ft. or more, high and wide, arching to the ground.
- Left unpruned, the form is more accurately a very large shrub rather than a tree.
- Because cotinus is amenable to sculpting, it’s possible to create a smaller shrub or a small tree.
- Once pruning has commenced, however, it must continue annually to maintain the desired shape; otherwise, smoke tree will revert to its natural growth habit, spreading high and wide.
- To create a single- or multi-trunked tree, wait until the plant has been in the ground for 2-3 years, then begin to limb up the shrub.
- Select one to three stems that will become the single or multiple trunks and remove lower branches.
- Continue to shape this way until you arrive at a satisfying tree-like shape over a period of 2-3 years.
- You may need to remove lower and interior branches that appear annually.
- If very tall shoots appear, unless removed, they will eventually arch horizontally and revert to a shrub form. Once removed, they will continue to re-grow annually.
With no pruning after planting, cotinus naturally assumes the form of a very large shrub, 10-15 ft. high and wide.
- To form a smaller, globe-like bush, every year in late winter or early spring before bud break, cut all stems to 6-12 in. above the ground.
- The result will be large, colored foliage at eye level for easy viewing, but no smoke-like flowers will appear.
- Cotinus blooms only on branches at least a year old, all of which are removed by annual pruning.
- By pruning severely every other year, the plant will still be at manageable size and flowers will bloom on untrimmed branches.
Smoke trees are deciduous, leafing out mid-April in Sonoma County and dropping their leaves in mid-to-late December.
- The intervening eight months begin with vibrant new foliage, followed by an arresting floral display, bright summer foliage, and stunning fall color.
- Species trees have bluish green, rounded leaves.
- Richly developed foliage throughout the seasons is found on specific named cultivars.
- ‘Royal Purple’ begins spring growth with rich maroon foliage that darkens to purplish red, sometimes nearly black in summer.
- ‘Velvet Cloak’ leaves are reddish purple in spring, then deepen to brighter orange-red in autumn.
- ‘Grace’ has huge, maroon leaves and spectacular fall color that turns a deep salmon pink, but branches may become unwieldy or unshapely.
- ‘Ancot’ has chartreuse leaves that turn yellow in autumn and is sometimes sold under its patented name ‘Golden Spirit.’