Tough, vigorous and beautiful, the Smoke Tree – Cotinus coggygria – has been a reliable garden shrub for a very long time. Whether you go for the original green-leaf version, or the very popular purple forms, they look great as a specimen out on a lawn, or as a background behind smaller shrubs. This is one of the oldest purple-leaf shrubs, and the unique cloud of smokey flowers that top it in summer are an outstanding feature. The brilliant fall colors are an additional element that help make this shrub potentially a very valuable garden choice.
Once you actually start to grow it, though, you soon realize that this is a plant with a mind of its own. It is very fast growing – an asset perhaps – but it has an angular form that elbows other plants out of the way. The simple solution is to leave it alone, giving it lots of room for itself. It certainly does need room, since the most popular variety – ‘Royal Purple’ – grows to 15 feet within a short time, pushing out those angular branches across an area even wider. Wonderful on a big expanse of lawn, for sure, but that is an area of 175 square feet – which is the size of a whole garden bed in a small garden.
So, most gardeners, having planted one in a space far too small for it, find themselves constantly hacking off large branches in an attempt to tame their smoke tree, wondering why the @#%$ it won’t stay looking like it did when you planted it. It’s a bit like buying what you thought was a poodle and ending up with a wolf hound. All that trimming just makes the smoke tree fight back, with long leafy branches sprouting in all directions, and the almost complete absence of those smokey clouds that make it such a valuable garden plant. If you find yourself faced with this problem, the best solution is to simply cut it to the ground every spring, leaving just the stumps of the branches. Within the season it will grow as much as six feet tall, and almost as wide, with extra-large leaves, but sadly no ‘smoke’. Attempts at more detailed pruning usually doesn’t work out well at all, because of this plant’s awkward form.
As a result, this plant has acquired a bad reputation as a bully and so it tends to be avoided – which is a shame. When this happens in gardening, sooner or later, by chance or design, along will come a smaller version that is much more suited for the present times. Many of us now garden in small urban places, or simply want to limit the planting in our gardens to save time. This has happened with the smoke tree, and now we have two very much smaller bushes that give us all the main features of this plant, but on manageable shrubs under 6 feet tall. One has excellent purple leaves, and the another has remarkable blooming.
Young Lady Smoketree
Let’s start with this amazing variety, that puts the emphasize on smoke. ‘Young’ because this variety blooms like crazy even on the smallest plant, and ‘Lady’ because its good manners and politeness towards the plants around it make it the perfect garden citizen. Growing only 4 to 6 feet tall and wide, the green leaves turns fabulous shades of orange, gold and yellow in fall, but it is the flowers that win the day. Smoke trees can be reluctant to flower, and often must be left alone for several years before doing it. Not the Young Lady Smoketree, which is a precocious bloomer, with every stem ending in a flower cluster, including the new ones produced in summer. This continuous flower production keeps blooms coming from June to September, so in a small garden this is a shrub that really earns its keep.
This Young Lady was brought up and educated in the Netherlands, and like so many of our best garden plants, this one is a product of Boskoop, a traditional center for plant production is a country whose nursery industry is large and thriving. The nurseryman Hendrik Kolster brought us ‘Young Lady’, and he was granted European Plant Breeder’s Rights (the European equivalent of a Plant Patent) in 1997. The Award of Garden Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society of the UK, that ‘Young Lady’ gained in 2012, is your guarantee this is not just a novelty plant, but something of real value.
Winecraft Black® Smoketree
If you love smoke trees because of those purple leaves, then, for a smaller space, the Winecraft Black® Smoketree is the one you want. For starters, it is just 4 to 6 feet tall and wide, so perfect at the back of a smaller shrub bed or tucked into the angle of the walls around your house. The new leaves in spring are a powerful and bright rich purple. Many of the older smoketree purple-leaf varieties turn greenish in summer, especially if they get a few hours of shade each day, but not this one. Instead, the foliage darkens and turns even more purple, beginning to approach black. In fall it can be relied on to give you a great show of red, gold and orange, and it will also flower in summer. Not with the vigor and persistence off ‘Young Lady’, but still a decent show, once your plant becomes well established.
Our professional plant breeders tend to be overlooked, but Thomas Ranney, a plant breeder at North Carolina State University, in Raleigh. is someone who has brought us many great plants. He found this compact shrub among a batch of seedlings in 1999, and immediately knew it was something worthwhile. Like all good breeders he waited, and only after 8 years of observations did he decide to patent this plant, with the proceeds going to the University to support more garden innovation. It has one of those cryptic names – ‘NCCO1’ – that often go with patented plants, so that the growers, Spring Meadow Nursery, can recoup their patent payments through a trademark name, Winecraft Black®.
So, with these new varieties, you can now enjoy all the features of the smoketree, but without the futile struggle to control its size – good news all around.
Caring for Smoke Trees
Neither of these plants really need much at all from us. A sunny spot in any soil that isn’t wet – in fact, poorer soils give the best color and blooming. Water regularly the first year, and after that you can probably leave these bushes to take care of themselves. With their compact habit you won’t need to prune or trim them either, so if you love smoketrees, but garden work not so much, what more could you ask for?
***To check the availability of any of the plants mentioned here, go to our Home Page, click on the ‘Search’ button in the upper right, and type in your choice – both common names and botanical ones will work. If, sadly, you find the item already sold out, click on the ‘notify me’ box beside the size you want, and you will get an email the moment that plant is available again – it’s easy.