Tree Talk: Smoke trees blaze in three seasons

Tree Talk: Smoke trees blaze in three seasons

Tree Talk: Smoke trees blaze in three seasons

Where there’s smoke there’s fire.

Well, that’s not always the case, unless you’re speaking of visual fire: the kind that ignites the garden and warms the heart of the gardener.

Commonly called the smoke tree, Cotinus coggygria is a small, undemanding deciduous tree, which, tucked into a sunny spot in any garden, will fill the space with beautiful foliage in spring, summer and autumn. Moreover, about this time of year when its elongated stalks of insignificant greenish blooms begin to fade, they turn into pinkish-lavender filaments. The tree appears to be engulfed in puffs of smoke.

Once the smoke dissipates, the plant is gearing up for its show of autumn color that ranges, depending on the cultivated variety, from yellow to orange to red. In winter the bare branches of Smoke Tree, while not spectacular, make for handsome lines, especially when played against dark evergreens.

Its native habitat stretches from southern Europe across central Asia and into China, the smoke tree is easy to grow and hands-off. You’ll need to site this plant where it gets plenty of light and has perfect drainage. In fact, it is at its best in poor or rocky soil. The plant will eventually reach a height of 12 to 15 feet. If you cut back new long branches by about half, the structure of the tree will become denser, in time putting on a more spectacular show.

There are a number of named varieties of Cotinus coggygria with varying leaf colors.

For leaves which emerge a rich purple but go green as the season progresses, look for C.c. ‘Nordine’ or ‘Purpureus’. For plants that hold their rich purple color through most of the growing season look for ‘Royal Purple,’ (which received the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Merit) and ‘Velvet Cloak’ (currently one of the most widely available Smoke Trees). In general, deeper purple-leafed plants produce the biggest “smoke” clouds.

The prize for the most vivid fall leaf show, goes to ‘Flame’ (also an RHS award plant). Ablaze with striking color, the autumn leaves seem to leap off the branches in a wide spectrum of reds and oranges. A hybrid between C. coggygria and C. obovatus, ‘Grace’ is currently one of the most popular and sought after smoke trees, beloved for its robust form, enormous puffs of smoke and autumn color.

This is the time of year to scout nurseries to find the exact plant (or plants) you want to add to your landscape. Bring them home and let them stay in their containers decorating a patio or deck. Keep them well watered, then put them in the ground in mid-October through November, just as our cool damp winter sets in.

You might even choose to put two different varieties with strongly contrasting summer leaf colors together. So strike that match. The fire will be beautiful but the smoke, positively ethereal.

STEVE LORTON is a Madison Park resident and former Northwest editor of Sunset.