There is a tree I have been meaning to write about about for some time, but the timing never seemed right. A tree type, I feel, that is so underappreciated and certainly underused. I have friends who, on occasion, surprise me and ask questions about a tree or plant they saw and suddenly become interested in my world. To this point, my wife has had a dear friend since childhood, and after all these years she has become a friend to me as well. Stefani is a vice president of global retail merchandising for a major American cosmetics brand and in my opinion has flawless taste. Her home and surroundings seem to epitomize grace and style. She has a “keen appreciation of how aesthetic principles work”, understanding color, contrast, texture, rhythm, etc. Her personal choices of expressing herself seem to be effortless and simple, so when she asked me for a Smoketree type, Cotinus coggygria, it just seemed fitting.
Common Smoketree or Smokebush is a plant type that finishes nicely between 10-15 feet tall and equally wide. A formidable, deciduous candidate for smaller spaces, this tree is a superb alternative to popular redbud and dogwood types. The native range for Cotinus coggygria is temperate Asia and Europe and its hardiness is between zones 5-8. A tree easily grown in average soil types, Smokebush has been touted to survive nearly anywhere except in miry ground types. Despite its rare appearances in American gardens, perhaps occurring as often as Brigadoon, this upright, loose-spreading, multi-stem tree can also be procured as a single stem. The common name, Smoketree (Smokebush), comes not from its tiny yellow flowers in the spring, rather from its “billowy hairs attached to elongated stalks on the spent flower clusters.” It is precisely this feature that has smoky purplish-pink highlights in the summer that remind me of optical fibers. Smoke-like puffs cover the tree and help punctuate the bluish-green leaves that are ovate to obovate. And while Smokebush can have erratic fall color markings at times, one can only hope for its yellow, orange and reddish-purple hues all to align. It is mystifying to me why this plant is not more popular given that it has no serious insect or disease problems, is drought tolerant and not favored by deer. However, Stefani may argue this last point, not as deer fodder, but rather “buck rub.” This striking accent plant could clearly be a single focal point or, as I have seen it done in Far Hills, New Jersey, used as an impressive hedge running over 100 feet.
As with most plants, there is a plethora of cultivars to choose from. ‘Royal Purple’ has foliage that is a rich maroon-red darkening to purplish red or black. Color that does not fade and in fact has rich reddish-purple fall color too. It is this cultivar that was used in Far Hills, NJ fronting a line of Magnolia virginiana. Imagine the dark tones of ‘Royal Purple’ set against the silvery blue-green foliage of a fragrant, summer flowering magnolia… breathtaking! ‘Golden Spirit’ is a bright yellow cultivar discovered as a chance seedling in 1990. An exciting plant that looks as good in the ground as it does in brightly colored pots in your outdoor space? ‘Velveteeny’ is a “teeny” form of ‘Royal Purple.’ Complete with feathery plumes of gray to pink flowers in the summer and striking burgundy foliage, this rounded dwarf form has adorned a few containers at our home. ‘Pink Champagne’ has bronze-purple new growth maturing to green with compact feathery pink inflorescences and ‘Grace’ has a massive pink flower panicle! ‘Grace’ received an Award of Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society and is certainly worth seeking out.
For centuries this plant was identified as Rhus cotinus, thus explaining its occasional reference as Venetian sumac. Now a stand-alone genus with only a few species, this midsize plant packs a colorful punch to any landscape, particularly its cultivars. While Smokebush may have a sort of tropical flare, it will be quite happy in an exposed, sunny location free of shelter. Pruning this plant can be quite the conundrum to gardeners, however. Coppicing this plant, almost to ground level in late winter or early spring, will promote vigorous new shoots and brightly colored leaf markings. However, in so doing you may control the plant’s size, but you most certainly will sacrifice its abundant flowers. Cotinus coggygria offers so much on such a small frame. A multi-branched shrub or small tree that can be tamed and kept tidy… or not? It’s no wonder Stefani became so enamored with it and chose it as a signature piece for her new home