Plant Spotlight on Smoke Bush

Smoke bush (tree) and American Smoke bush are deciduous shrubs that bring textural interest and color to the yard from spring to fall. The first Smoke bush type is Cotinus obovatus (American Smoke bush) is a Southern United States native found from Tennessee to Texas. C. obovatus adds winter interest due to its curious peeling ‘fish-scale’ trunk pattern. The second is Cotinus coggygria, which is native to Southern Europe all the way to Central China.

Cotinus’s common name becomes clear when plumes of smoky-pink hairs show up surrounding the yellow-green flowers. Delicate panicles give the illusion of billowy smoke at the tips of the branches. These pink fluffy hairs remain on the branches throughout the summer, eventually maturing to a purply shade in late summer.

Smoke bushes are prized for being hardy, adaptable, and low maintenance. They are perfect as a specimen plant, in a mixed perennial border, or planted en masse to create a hedge. If you like the smoke, wait till you see the fire! Handsome, ovate-shaped leaves are a waxy green blue-green or purplish (depending on the variety) that turn into gorgeous colors such as red, purple, burgundy, bronze, or orange come fall.

Plant Profile

Smoke bushes create a round shape with an upright, multi-stemmed growth habit.

Zones: 4-9

Sun/Shade: Full sun (at least six hours a day)

Height: 10’-15’ high

Width: 10’-15’ wide

Bloom Time: Late spring to mid-summer (smokey ‘hairs’ remain all summer)

Bloom Color: Yellow-green flowers (followed by smoke pink panicle ‘hairs’)

Wildlife: Provides cover and nesting places for birds and other wildlife.

Cultivation

Loamy, well-draining soil is ideal. However, Cotinus is highly adaptable to a wide variety of soil types and doesn't have a problem contending with dry, rocky soils. One thing Smoke bushes won’t tolerate is ‘wet feet’, so don’t overwater it, especially in soil that doesn’t drain well. Choose an area that receives full sun. Dig a hole that’s twice the size of the plant’s root ball. Place some soil back into the hole so that the base of the plant sits just above the soil line. Fill the hole in by blending in good garden soil along with the native soil.

Smoke bushes will need regular watering until they become established in the yard. While they are a drought-tolerant plant once they are well-rooted in their new home, a healthy drink of water each week during a drought will keep them looking their best. They also appreciate a layer of compost added around the bush each spring.

Living up to its low maintenance reputation, it’s not necessary to prune a Smoke tree. But if you’d like to, then do so in the very early spring before they bloom.

Varieties

The varieties listed below all belong to C. coggygria except for ‘Cotton Candy’, which is a cultivar of C. obovatus.

  • ‘Ancot’ (‘Golden Spirit’) Golden Spirit Smoke Tree is loved for its unique, golden foliage in the summer.
  • ‘Grace’ is a fast grower with red wine spring foliage that deepens to a plum in the fall. Grace tends to spread out as she ages.
  • ‘Nordine’ is a small-sized cultivar with deep burgundy-red-bronze summer leaves which give way to purple-red and orange leaves in the fall.  
  • ‘Royal Purple’ is a popular variety thanks to its spectacular deep-purple leaves that turn brilliant red and purple in the fall.
  • ‘Kanari’ Smoke Tree is a small smoke tree whose leaves begin lemon-yellow in color, becoming light green later, and eventually a striking purple come fall. Unlike other Smoke bushes, Kanari’s smoky plumes start off white and age into beige.  
  • Cotton Candy™ (‘Northstar’) is a small-sized shrub with puffy pink plumes. Foliage is blue-green which turns red and orange in the fall.

Special Features

The Smoke tree’s special features may not sound especially exciting at first. However, they don’t have any notable pests, are disease-resistant, drought-resistant, and deer-resistant places them squarely onto the list of some of the hardiest and low-maintenance shrubs out there (which is fairly exciting). Bonus: They are unique and lovely in floral arrangements.

Warning: Smoke bush is slightly toxic, as the sap can cause skin irritation. So, it’s best to wear gloves while pruning.