Where There’s Smoke . . .

Smoke Bush (Cotinus coggygria) | A Garden for All by Kathy Diemer

Smoke Bush is rich in color (Photo credit: Kathy Diemer)

. . . there’s fire, and if you’re looking for a plant to ignite your garden setting this year, Cotinus coggygria may be just the plant you’ve been searching for.  Cultivated in Britain since 1656, and formerly known as Rhus cotinus, Cotinus coggygria is a blazing shrub that flaunts itself from early June to frost in my northern garden.  Also known as the smoke bush because of the frothy sprays of ashy grey flowers it bears each summer, I grow the showier Cotinus coggygria ‘Royal Purple’.  And, I don’t grow it for the flowers . . . I grow it for the outrageously showy, rich maroon-purple foliage that provides a dependably stunning display in my gardens every year.

Smoke bush dazzles with bright orange day lilly in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer https://agardenforall.com

Smoke bush dazzles with bright orange daylily (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

Though there is a native smoke tree, Cotinus obovatus, which grows over 20′ tall, I prefer the more compact Cotinus coggygria, native to Southern Europe and China, because it works beautifully as an accent shrub in a garden border (especially when combined with golden bed mates).  Hardy in zones 5-8, non-invasive and drought tolerant once established, this is a work horse plant that doesn’t require any special handling or fertilizing.  I have grown Royal Purple for almost 20 years in difficult zone 5 conditions, and the only maintenance is a light pruning during the summer (as the branches grow so fast they tend to droop) and a hard pruning (down to around 3 feet) in late March to early April (I am also experimenting with the chartreuse smoke bush, Cotinus coggygria ‘Ancot’ Golden Spirit, but it is too soon to confirm its reliability).

Smoke bush glows behind golden juniper in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer https://agardenforall.com

Smoke bush glows behind golden juniper (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

Every spring brings panic that I have somehow killed my smoke bushes, and I study and fret over their stark brown branches for weeks until, like magic, each Cotinus coggygria ‘Royal Purple’ bursts to life seemingly overnight with half dollar sized burgundy foliage emerging from once dormant looking limbs.  Within days Royal Purple is absolutely lush with circular leaves that flutter in the wind like delicate butterfly wings and ignite with fiery hues as the sun reflects upon them.

Smoke bush offers a bright welcome in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer https://agardenforall.com

Smoke bush offers a bright welcome (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

Although it can get quite large over time (over 10 feet without pruning), smoke bush thrives as a smaller garden companion, offering gorgeous contrast and texture to surrounding plants and shrubs, as well.  In my gardens, Cotinus co-mingles happily with perennials, boxwood, evergreens and day lilies, while an annual pruning keeps the shrub in check and promotes its prize winning deep mahogany leaves. Remember to site this shrub where it will have the sun behind it, as the slightly translucent leaves are quite stunning when sunlight shines behind them.


  1. Mr Gerry Checketts says

    I have a Smoke Bush, but I have never seen flowers on it.
    When we moved into the property it had really been neglected, the trunk was about 6 inches
    in diameter and over 6 feet tall.
    Being amateur gardeners we decide to treat it really harshly so we cut it down to within a foot of the ground with the chance to survive or die. This year we have a much better bush with
    beautiful purple foliage, but no sign of any flowers. Is there a non flowering Smoke Bush shrub?.

    • You did the best thing possible by cutting the smoke bush back, as they have a leggy nature and tend to look unkempt once they reach a certain height. As you have seen, your pruning promoted fresh, vibrant new growth that is a brilliant asset to your garden. Because smoke bushes bloom on “old wood” (branches that are over a year old), when much of the older growth is pruned off the result is no flowers–possibly for a few years. If flowers are really important, leave the shrub untrimmed and you should see blooms within the next few years. However, if you’re like me, you may decide that the glorious foliage displayed from yearly pruning is worth the loss of flowers!

  2. Hi Patricia, Since you don’t mention where you live I can only tell you that I found smoke bush on line at: http://www.naturehills.com. I cannot recommend them as I have never purchased from them. I always recommend that you try local nurseries before resorting to on line purchasing. Good luck!

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