Spectacular Smokebush – Cotinus

I’ve always appreciated the value of smokebush (also called smoke tree) out in the landscape as a solidly performing woody plant with plenty of “curb appeal”.  This blog includes many photos of this plant that I’ve taken over the years and represents some of the fun selections that are available for the home gardener.  At the top of this blog is the variety ‘Grace’ which is a hybrid between American smokebush (Cotinus obovatus) and ‘Velvet Cloak’ European smokebush (Cotinus coggygria).  Directly above is the variety ‘Royal Purple’ which is one of the more commonly available selections.  Other varieties below are identified under the photo.

The American smokebush (Cotinus obovatus), native to the Southeastern United States from Tennessee to Alabama and west to Oklahoma and Eastern Texas is commonly available as are the many cultivars of European smokebush (Cotinus coggygria) which is native from Southern Europe to Central Asia and Northern China.  In terms of their cultural needs, they are very similar and their primary ornamental value revolves around the “smoke-like”, fluffy flowers that extend interest well in to summer.  The plume like flowers (termed “open terminal panicles”) have very fine, extended “hairs” that darken over time giving a lengthy show of “wispiness”!  Many selections have colorful foliage (maroon and gold being common) and most will also have some degree of good to excellent fall color which is variable.  The deepest maroons and golds on those selections are most intense in spring with some fading during the heat of summer.  This is a woody plant that doesn’t need rich soils and will thrive in rocky, dry, infertile soils with sharp drainage.  The best fall color is on specimens growing in those “leaner” soils.  Again, with superior drought tolerance, smokebush doesn’t care for heavier, wet soils and a neutral to alkaline pH soil is ideal.  Smokebush is deer resistant and hardy from zones 5-8 although zone 4 hardiness is possible with some winter protection.  Leaf spot, rust and verticillium wilt can be problems for this genus although stressed plants are more likely to suffer from these ailments.

These plants typically will reach heights around 15′ or so although I have seem some taller, older specimens.  While typically multi-stemmed in terms of growth, there are single stem opportunities.  When placing them in the landscape, you do have to account for their mature size but they can be cut back severely in winter to maintain their size.  Cutting smokebush back severely (coppicing) in late winter/early spring will result in a very lush regrowth in spring with larger than typical leaves.  This regrowth can easily be 6′-9′ of new growth in one season and I’ve seen even more significant growth.  This coppicing does compromise the flowers for that season but is sometimes warranted to keep this plant in scale and refresh the older growth with new stems.  There are now some more compact forms coming on the market (look for Winecraft Black® and Winecraft Gold®).  I am not aware of any cultivated selections of American smokebush (Cotinus obovatus) but the hybrid ‘Grace’ is mentioned above and common European smokebush (Cotinus coggygria) selections include ‘Royal Purple’ (maroon), ‘Velvet Cloak’ (maroon), ‘Nordine’ (maroon), ‘Daydream’ (green), ‘Flame’ (green  – awesome fall color), ‘Young Lady’ (green and compact), Golden Spirit™ (‘Ancot’ – golden!), the two compact Winecraft® selections mentioned above and another compact selection called Velveteeny™ (‘Cotsidh5′) which I haven’t tried yet.  Supposedly, this selection only gets 4’ tall but I’ll believe it when I see it!  Compactness in Cotinus is certainly a good thing though!

‘Royal Purple’ – UW Madison campus – above

I think this is ‘Nordine’..not entirely sure – above

‘Royal Purple’ (above and below)

spring foliage of ‘Royal Purple’ above and five photos below…


I planted this specimen (above and below) at my parents house (Chicago suburbs) back in 1994 and it was 15′ in 8 years!  I cut it back in late winter to a foot and the new growth (second photo down) was vivid and fast growing (no flowers that year though!

regrowth of big specimen (‘Royal Cloak’) further above

Winecraft Black® smokebush (Cotinus coggygria ‘NCCO1’) – above

intense fall color (variable!) of ‘Royal Cloak’ (above and four below)

‘Grace’ – hybrid – at Olbrich Botanical Garden (Madison, WI) – above

‘Young Lady’ – only gets 8′-10′ tall – above and seven below

Golden Spirit™ (‘Ancot’) – above and nine below



muted fall color of Golden Spirit™ (‘Ancot’) – above and below

American smokebush (Cotinus obovatus) – above and five below (note fall color!)