Can smoke in the garden be a good thing?

'Young lady' smoke bush provides the perfect backdrop for this delicate pink rose. Bellevue Botanical Gardens


Call it a revelation, but I think I may like smoking smoke bushes after all.

Sorry but the smoke on this 'Royal purple' just doesn't register on the excitement scale for me! The color just seems rather flat, especially against the dull purple foliage

I've been somewhat of a smoke snob until recently. Smoke bushes (Cotinus species) are fabulous foliage shrubs without a  doubt. Yet the classic  'Royal purple' smoke bush (Cotinus coggygria 'Royal purple'), with or without its fluffy pink 'smoke' (flowers) has just never grabbed me. The leaves are a nice color but not especially large and that puffy stuff (aka smoke/flowers) was quite frankly a turn off.  As new varieties were hybridized and  the foliage got more interesting  THEN I was hooked!

In fall 'Grace' really begins to smolder and looks stunning when showcased against brighter foliage such as this ash tree

With iridescent foliage over twice the size of its parents, 'Grace' (Cotinus x Grace) really brought new life to the mixed border with stunning blue and purple hues – but I was greedy! I wanted even bigger  foliage so I coppiced mine every spring to prevent blooms and encourage steroidal sized  leaves. Fabulous. I added burnt orange 'Flasher' daylilies to the front and sat back to watch the show! 'Grace' grows to 10-15' tall and wide if not coppiced yet mine easily grew to 6' x 6' each year even after being hacked back to just 2' above ground in April. Moreover each leaf could be 3" or more long – really quite remarkable.

Copper tinted new growth on 'Golden spirit' offers the opportunity for some creative combinations




Next came the 'chartreuse era.'  "Ah yes" you say, "circa 2000". True. But 'Golden spirit' (Cotinus coggygria 'Ancot') has come through the initial hype with glowing reviews. Luminous golden foliage is etched with copper  in early spring making it a wonderful partner to cinnamon toned Heucherella such as 'Sweet tea'. Yet again I'm all about the leaves  so I coppice the shrub to prevent flower formation and  allow the shrub  to focus on outstanding foliage production instead. 6-8' tall and 5' wide.

'Old fashioned' in name alone - this smoke bush has become a new favorite


So why this post? I've decided I do quite like smoke after all. My daughter recently gave me her 'Old fashioned' smoke bush (Cotinus coggygria 'Old fashioned') and I have found a new love! Soft blue-green foliage blends seamlessly into the garden without drawing undue attention to itself yet is far from boring. Each leaf is etched delicately with burgundy and the SMOKE is delightful. Yes really. Or at least what I have seen so far is delightful. Soft buttery-yellow buds catch the light and add just the right amount of sparkle to the garden. The shrub catches your attention without screaming "Look at ME"! In my garden, 'Old fashioned' smoke bush is the perfect visual resting place between a golden locust tree (Robinia pseudoacacia 'Frisia')  and purple barberries (Berberis sp.). It offers  a soothing note before the more usual 'Karen – Kaleidoscope'. 6' tall and 5' wide.

 'Young lady' (Cotinus coggygria 'Young lady') is another relatively new introduction which piqued my interest last year after seeing it in the display gardens at Bellevue Botanical Gardens. Gentle teal green foliage was decorated with plumes of frothy pink  flowers. Being a gardener who is especially interested in plant combinations I was especially struck by how the designers had paired this with a pale pink rose. It was like a modern take on adding maidenhair fern to a rose bowl; so delicate and fresh. Each set its companion off to perfection and was all the more significant for the partnership. 8-10' tall and wide

A smoking 'Young lady' paired with a sunset colored hyssop (Agastache)

So smoke CAN be a good thing in the garden – who knew?

What's your favorite smoke bush?


Smoke bushes are hardy in zones 5-9 but would make fabulous foliage plants even for seasonal combinations.




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  1. Laurrie on May 28, 2012 at 5:15 am

    I too was turned off by the color and coarseness of smokebush, and I didn't like the smoke blooms that I saw on giant rangy unkempt smokebushes that had been left to their own. Then I saw Grace and changed my mind. You describe it as iridescent and it really is. I coppice it like you do to eliminate the smoky mess of flowers, and I love the foliage. Mine is young, I'm waiting for it to spread and gain some size, but it grows rapidly. How nice to have our minds changed by an improved plant!

    • Karen Chapman on May 28, 2012 at 4:11 pm

      Funny that we had the same reactions – good and bad! I find Grace takes until the third year to really start to put on new growth.

  2. Elvin McDonald on May 29, 2012 at 7:24 am

    Years ago I planted a smokebush in my garden and the second season it had one tall stem that suggested the beginning of a tree-form standard. It now has a trunk at least 2 inches in diameter and stands about 12 feet tall with a rounded head I maintain by pruning. The same thing happened with a 'Golden Spirit' I planted the year it was introduced. The lollipop shapes stand out in my city garden which is basically English style–structure with exuberant plantings.

    • Karen Chapman on May 29, 2012 at 8:26 pm

      A great idea Elvin! I have seen 'standard' smoke bushes a few times and it gives them a whole new persona.

  3. Katie on May 29, 2012 at 2:10 pm

    I'm so glad you like him!!! I can't wait to come and visit him, and see his true potential 🙂

    • Karen Chapman on May 29, 2012 at 8:27 pm

      Thanks again Katie! X

  4. Karen Everett Watson on May 31, 2012 at 5:10 am

    Oh, Karen, I love the smoke bushes! Wish I had one. One of my first photos that I took as a photography student was of a wild one. It was huge and sitting next to a pond. The reflection was as wonderful as the actual bush!

    • Karen Chapman on May 31, 2012 at 9:19 pm

      I've never seen them 'wild' but I can imagine the reflection must have been stunning.

  5. debsgarden on May 31, 2012 at 9:15 pm

    I have never had a smoke bush, but 'Young Lady' may tempt me. I love the combination with the hyssop!

    • Karen Chapman on May 31, 2012 at 9:20 pm

      Don't you just wish YOU had thought of it first!!

  6. Mary Pellerito on June 3, 2012 at 4:43 am

    I'm not a big fan of smoke bushes. I like the plants they combined with the smoke bush much better. It seems like that would be a design challenge and they were up to the task.