Cotinus coggyria: Smoking in the garden

Smoketree 1

Billows of smoke from the Cotinus coggyria in our back garden.

Slow growing. Too big for a shrub and too small for a tree. Straggly. Did I say really slow growing?

Smoketrees can get a lot of heat from picky gardeners. But when the setting sun lights up their panicles in a shimmering nimbus how can you think otherwise than your garden is all the more miraculous for it.

If I haven’t already convinced you to invest in a Cotinus coggyria, give me five minutes of your time.

SMALLER IS GOOD: Cotinus is actually the genus of two species—C. coggyria and C. obovatus. The latter is native to a few areas in south central United States. It’s bigger than C. coggyria, growing over 30 feet in height but, quite frankly, lacks the elegance of its smaller sister C. coggyria, a native to a great and varied swath of ecosystems dotting much of the northern Mediterranean and popping up, with waining enthusiasm, across the continent eastward through the Himalayas and into parts of China. Perhaps because C. coggyria grows to only about half the height of her American sister and has a wider range of leaf characteristics, you’re likely to find cultivars of this plant at your local garden centre. And you can’t deny C. coggyria’s shapely form, thanks to multiple, undulating trunks, and a more striking bloom than C. obovatus.

Smoketree smoke

What makes the smoke are elongated pedicels.

ABOUT THAT BLOOM: But, first, a word about flower anatomy. A panicle is a flower that’s actually a whole bunch of teeny flowers held aloft by a whole bunch of teeny branches. (In the case of C. coggyria, they can be up to a foot in length.) A pedicel is the teeny stem directly attached to each teeny flower.

When a smoketree blooms, the actual flowers are so small that they aren’t of much consequence but they do create lovely, large, airy panicles. The smoke from a smoketree happens after flowering. The pedicels of each tiny bloom grows long like a silken hair. So what you’re seeing is a cloud of panicles made up of hairy pedicels.

Yup, smoke just sounds so much better. On the other hand, wouldn’t it be wonderful to have your own Cotinus coggyria so that you can turn to a significant other on a warm summer’s eve and say “Oh, how the pedicels in my panicles are glowing tonight!”

AND THE LEAVES ARE PRETTY AMAZING, TOO: Grey green, blue green, pinkish, almost red, orange, deep purple. The leaves of a Cotinus coggyria can vary in colour a whole lot depending on how much sunlight it’s getting, whether it’s been pruned or not, whether the climate is generally cooler or warmer, the time of year and, of course, the cultivar. My smoketree starts out greenish, turns almost blue in the summer (see photo above) and then warms up to a fine wine colour (top photo) in the fall. What doesn’t differ is the silky texture of each simple, oval shaped leaf and the slender stems that reach straight up to spray those smoky panicles into the air.

Then add up the fact that smoketrees are pretty undemanding. They actually don’t like rich soils. They’ll do much better in medium or even poor soil whether it’s sandy, clay, gravelly, or something in between. And once they’re established, they don’t mind not getting watered.

Makes getting a little smoke in your garden seem like the right thing to do, doesn’t it?




2 thoughts on “Cotinus coggyria: Smoking in the garden

  1. Okay, okay, I’m heading out to the local nursery to see whether they stock smoketrees. Now, what to call it in French? Turns out it’s called barbe de Jupiter (Jupiter’s Beard) or Fustet, which refers (thank you, French Wikipédia) to a kind of color used to dye wool and leather that was once derived from the wood of this tree. 😉


    • I like Jupiters Beard. Much more evocative than smoketree! They are native to South Central Europe (would that include France???) so you should be able to find one. And if you do, I know my work here will be done. 🙂


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