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Plant Profiles: Cotinus


Drawing by Rene Eisenbart


Your Highness

Smokebush (C. coggygria),
Smoke tree (C. obovatus)

Smokebush -- tall, spreading deciduous shrub, 10 to 15

Smoke tree -- upright, medium-sized tree with rounded crown, to 30 feet

Sun, good drainage

Wet feet

Smokebush doesn't take standard pruning well; either leave it ample room or cut it back to one-foot in the fall

Deciduous Shrub or Tree

Remember the last time you went to a nursery to buy someone a plant? And how you stood around, bewildered, maybe even a little cranky, wondering what to buy?

Here's a hint: I've never seen anyone look at a purple-leaved Cotinus coggygria and remain apathetic. Just the other day, my esteemed partner -- a "no thanks, no plants" kind of guy -- stopped in front of a smokebush and stared in uncharacteristic awe at its glowing mass of sun singed, blood-black foliage. (Frankly, I was more in awe of his reaction. Dare I hope he's coming around?)

Among the best dark-leaved smokebush cultivars on the market are 'Royal Purple', 'Velvet Cloak', 'Notcutt's Variety', and 'Nordine Red'. No doubt newer varieties are being unloaded at the nursery even as I write. These plants can be grown either as large, multi-stemmed shrubs (on average, twelve feet tall and wide) with vast, buff-pink-to-purple puffs in summer, or as walloping foliage accents for color-hungry gardens.

Wallop is precisely what you do to get the best foliage color out of a purple-leaved smokebush. Early each spring, cut the shrub back to within a foot of the ground. The technique -- called stooling -- may seem drastic, but the payoff is nearly immediate: lush and large-leaved four-foot pillars of deep wine reds or chocolate purples, depending on the cultivar you buy.

Of course, if you do whack back the shrub, forget about the smoke. By removing the current season's woody growth, you've nuked the flowers (and therefore the silklike hairs on the spent floral plumes that give the plant its common name). For a smoking bush, just let it grow.

And, might I add, grow. The shrub resents pruning (as opposed to stooling) and will develop gangly, whiplike stems to spite you if you try to keep it small.

One of the smokiest C. coggygria cultivars is the green-leaved form 'Daydream', chosen for its heavy-headed, rounded flower panicles that hover like clouds above a compact, ten-foot shrub. 'Flame', a blue-green-leaved cotinus with characteristic paddle-shaped leaves, is favored for its particularly brilliant orange-red fall color.

For the best of both worlds -- soft red leaves that darken with age and massive amounts of smoke -- the current rage is the long-legged, twenty-foot hybrid 'Grace', whose purplish pink flower clusters measure more than a foot long.

Yet if I had the space and knew I was staying put, my first choice would be the green-leaved American smoketree, C. obovatus, both because of its majestic presence and the statement it makes in the fall: a dynamic conflagration of yellow, orange, peach and red. Seems the foliage was in such demand as a source of dye during the civil war that C. obovatus in the wild was almost lost. Certainly the summer plumes on this handsome hunk are not as showy as those of C. coggygria. But when the smoke clears, C. obovatus is completely glorious and capable of inspiring awe, even in a "no plants" kind of guy.

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    Plant Profiles are excerpted from Plant This! by Ketzel Levine



    Copyright © 2003 National Public Radio, Washington, D.C.