The Best Season Ever: Purple-leaved Smokebush



Caught by Summer, the foliage of purple-leaved smokebush is so intense! In the picture above, the leaves are back-lit by afternoon sun. When the light streams through them head-on, the leaves glow wine-red, and the veins are a subtle pale green. When back-lit at more of an angle, the leaves are bloody ebony, and the veins pinkish red.


Below, foliage is seen (and lighted) from above, as a young stem of Cotinus coggygria 'Velvet Cloak' thrusts up through one of the immense, compound, variegated leaves of a nearby Aralia elata 'Silver Umbrellas'. The smokebush foliage is now matte burgundy. The veins of mature leaves are pink, while the youngest leaves are an eager rosé.  




New stems of Cotinus grow quickly, especially when the shrub is pruned hard in late Winter or early Spring. In the picture below, all stems of the smokebush were pruned to a foot or less; by late July, stems were already four feet tall. The upper leaves are high enough to come between the viewer and the sun and, so, flash the most brilliantly. The lower leaves are seen only by the light they reflect, not transmit. Especially in contrast with the giddy top foliage, the bluish notes of lower leaves are even more prominent.  




By Fall, the Cotinus stems have stopped their skyward soaring. Sometimes the leaves adopt a different coloring as the weather cools, a mix of red, orange, and yellow. But in my experience, Fall more often brings a recommitment to burgundy. The matte finish disappears in favor of some shine, while the leaves' ability to "transluce" light is lessened in favor of simply reflecting it. The contrast with the impossibly delicate foliage of the curtain of Asparagus verticillatus couldn't be better.




Here's an unusual look at—and sniff of—smokebush twigs after they were pruned in late Winter.


Here's how to grow this remarkably accommodating shrub, which can be handled in so many ways that several dozen different looks, habits, and overall sizes are possible.


Latin Name

Cotinus coggygria 'Velvet Cloak' 

Common Name

Purple-leaved smokebush


Anacardiaceae, the Sumac family.

What kind of plant is it?

Tough and tolerant deciduous shrub.


The green-leaved straight species is a bit hardier, into Zone 4. Although the shrub is often winterkilled nearly to the ground there; it resprouts eagerly from the base. Purple-leaved forms such as 'Velvet Cloak' are generally rated hardy only to Zone 5, but can succeed in Zone 4 with protection. See the first "How to handle it" for suggestions on enhancing hardiness.


The upper range of hardiness for both the species and its cultivars is Zone 8. 


Highly variable, depending on handling. When growing free-range, the shrub is multi-stemmed and, usually, wider than high. Cotinus is unusually—even uniquely—flexible about pruning, though. Not only can it be trained into most of the usual forms and habits (soloist or en masse as a hedge; single-stem or multi-stem whether free-range or pruned; if pruned: pollard or standard or coppice), other more complex variants can be added. In any given season, what proportion of stems will be allowed to flower and "smoke?" How will they relate to non-flowering stems that result from pruning? Is basal growth eliminated or retained when the top-growth is trained as a pollard or standard? Do all or just some or none of these basal stems flower?


With all the choices and sub-choices, there are dozens of different training options. The shrub is usually so fast-growing that only an espalier seems a stretch. See the second "How to handle it," below. 

Rate of Growth


Size in ten years

Growing free-range, a mature 'Velvet Cloak' is big: Ten to fifteen feet high and wide, and often wider than high. When coppiced in Spring, resultant growth is very eager but stays much more upright. In ideal conditions, new stems can soar eight feet or more from a base of older trunks a foot or two high, but the spread can be just six feet or even less.


Free-range bushes are informally rounded and full, with large and dense cloudlike masses of foliage, wreathed in "smoke" a few feet above attractively irregular trunk-like stems. Coppiced specimens begin the season as dense mounds of leafy new growth, but individual stems soon soar above the rest. By late season (as in my picture above), the look can be, admittedly, lanky. See "Plant partners," below, for suggestions on combinations that help both free-range and coppiced specimens look their best.

Grown for

its foliage: Smooth-edged and rounded, and at the tips of long and slender petioles, Cotinus leaves are arrayed spirally around fast-growing stems. The array and resultant texture is distinctive as well as pleasing. Leaves of 'Velvet Cloak' are a deep matte burgundy when viewed from the same side of the foliage that the light is striking. Cotinus can grow so quickly, and become so large, that it isn't unusual, especially late in the season, for the growth to be higher than eye-level. Then leaves can be between you and the sun, allowing the foliage to transmit light that is a startling, thrilling wine-red. From either vantage, the hue of emerging leaves is brighter than that of mature ones.


Fall foliage color can sometimes be a spectacular mix of yellow, orange, and red, but don't count on it. 


the profuse hairs on the panicles' pedicels and peduncles that persist for many weeks after the flowers have faded—i.e., the "smoke": I don't have room for a free-range Cotinus, and the pruning that limits size also precludes the flowers and the subsequent "smoke." Where there's room for flowering and smoking, the display is unique among woody plants: The infinity of hairs on all the many stalks and stems of the profuse and much-branched panicles creates an uncanny imitation of billowing wispy shrub-level clouds. The smoke of green-leaved forms is buff or gray, but on the purple-leaved cultivars such as 'Velvet Cloak', it can be raspberry-pink.   


its lack of appeal to browsers: Despite the profusion of soft and thornless new growth each season, Cotinus is normally not even sampled by browsers. Perhaps there's a slight but telling fragrance that wafts from the foliage, firmly communicating just one word: "Yuck!"


its ease and flexibility of handling: If you have the room, Cotinus can be allowed to grow free-range as a very large multi-stemmed shrub. Or you can pollard the main branches each Spring, or every other Spring, or cut only some of the branches of each head of growth back one year, and the rest the next. Or you can train the shrub into a single-headed small tree, with or without a fluffy mound of groundlevel growth; the tree's canopy can be left to grow free-range or can be pollarded to form a standard. Or you can cut some or all of the stems down to a foot or two annually, to control overall size while also precluding flowering but also enhancing foliage size and coloring. Or you could change your mind every few years, transforming the same shrub time and again, from coppice to pollard to free-range, and from single-stem to multi-stem and back again. Lastly, you could plant Cotinus in a row as a hedge; every three or four feet is close enough. If you have the room, allow it to flower and, so, form a horticultural pun: a smoke screen.


its steady performance throughout the growing season: When coppiced or pollarded, new stems continue growing—and, therefore, producing new foliage with the most intense coloring—as long as warm weather holds. When year-old stems are left unpruned their second Spring, they produce the panicles of flowers and the follow-on smoke, ensuring an active and changing display for much of the Summer. And then, there's the possibility of Fall coloring, but even if the change from Summer isn't much, the contrast of the Summer foliage with the Fall colors of surrounding plants (as in my last pictures) can be just as satisfying.

Flowering season

If left unpruned in Winter and early Spring, last year's stems produce small yellow flowers in late Spring. Although truly tiny—a third of an inch across—they emerge in dense clusters that are briefly showy against the dark foliage. The larger and much more sustained show is from the "smoke" that follows by later Spring or early Summer. The "smoke season" is reported to be longer in cooler-Summer climates, from June to August and even September. In hotter climates, the smoke usually dissipates by late July.

Color combinations

If 'Velvet Cloak' is pruned so as to preclude flowering, the shrub can mingle with any color, from the most saturated orange or red to the palest pink and blue. If allowed to flower, though, the shrub's pinkish smoke would clash mightily with red, orange, and yellow. A flowering 'Velvet Cloak', then, is best limited to a pink-friendly garden, whereas a non-flowering 'Velvet Cloak' can go anywhere, and with anything.    

Plant partners

Cotinus coggyria 'Velvet Cloak' is unusually versatile in its tolerance of different soils and degrees of moisture, its range of hardiness, and its options in handling. So the possibilities in partner plants are unusually wide, too. Add into consideration the shrub's striking yet goes-with-anything foliage coloring; unusual, delicately-shaped and -arrayed foliage; tall spires of new growth (and the awkward stumps that produce them) developed by coppiced or pollarded specimens; and sophisticated flowers and iconic follow-on "smoke" on free-range ones?  The result is a swirling profusion of opportunities.


The easiest way to organize them is to think in terms of soil moisture. Few partner plants are as comfortable both in soils that are humus-rich and moisture-retentive and those that are sandy or stonily lean. 


Partner plants for soils

that are moisture-retentive,

with a normal to rich amount of humus  


Almost any fern offers a thrilling contrast in foliage color, texture, and shape. Onoclea sensibilis has volunteered at the base of one of my pair of 'Velvet Cloak' and, while this fern's bright green fronds are almost clumsy in their wide lobing, the juxtaposition with the stems and foliage of the Cotinus is still marvelous. Imagine how must better, still, would be the supremely dissected fronds of Dennstaedtia—which is also more tolerant of reduced soil moisture. Either of these ferns has the potential to form a wide colony that is also tall enough to hide much or most of the awkward stumps of a coppiced Cotinus


Other dense plants that finesse the base of the Cotinus (whether the shrub is coppiced or free-range) include Amsonia, Buxus sempervirens 'Vardar Valley', Ilex crenata 'Beehive', Ilex glabra 'Nordic', Iris pseudacorus, Miscanthus sinensis 'Kleine Fontane', Rhododendron laetevirens, Rhododendron yakushimanum, Spirea japonica 'White Gold', Xanthorhiza simplicissima, and most herbaceous and woody forms of Paeonia. Ilex, Buxus, and Rhododendron would provide evergreen cover and contrast year round, but the seasonal fireworks of the deciduous and herbaceous options make them persuasive choices as well.


You might want to keep the focus on just the steadily-lengthening upper portions of new stems of coppiced 'Velvet Cloak'; their foliage is so vivid that the foliage formed earlier in the season (and, hence, lower down the stems) seems faded and tired. If you site the shrub in back of plants that are always high enough to screen faded lower foliage that would be in view in August and September, those plants would need to be four to six feet tall—which would obscure the emerging growth from the coppiced Cotinus from May through July. The answer is screeners that also begin the season at just a foot or two high, but then grow lustily, and keep pace with the Cotinus. Coverage needn't be total; a filigree is usually easier to achieve and is more gracefully effective anyway. Consider ornamental grasses with slender leaf blades whose top portion is formed by their plumes, not their foliage: Andropogon gerardiiMiscanthus sinensis 'Arabesque' or 'Graziella', Molinia arundinaceae 'Skyracer', or Sorghastrum nutans. Or, consider either of these two forms of daisy, which have tall but feathery growth, and "filigree" with style: Helianthus angustifolius or Helianthus salicifolius. 


As my pictures suggest, partner plants whose foliage is variegated (or, simply, any color other than just green) are a certain success. The dark solid coloring of 'Velvet Cloak' synergizes with all combinations of leaf hue and pattern and size. If your Cotinus is part of a pink-friendly ensemble, what about Athyrium nipponicum var. pictumAcer negundo 'Flamingo', and Salix integra 'Hakuro-nishiki'


If yellow? Consider Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Fernspray Gold', Coreopsis tripteris 'Lightning Flash', Farfugium japonicum 'Aureomaculatum'Spirea thunbergii 'Ogon', and Wiegela florida 'Rubidor'. And on the shadiest side of the Cotinus, any of the zillions of yellow-leaved forms of Hosta. Yellow brings a small but considerate bonus: The small pale-yellow Cotinus flowers can finally receive a shout-out.   


If red? There are few hardy plants with literally red variegation. Most "reds" are usually shades of burgundy, and wonderful that color is, of course. But few burgundy-leaved plants could compete with the rich coloring of 'Velvet Cloak.' If you decide on red, then, it had better be red. Imperata cylindrica 'Rubra' is the only hardy plant that comes to mind—in this case, an ornamental grass—whose leaves could truly be called red. But there are some tropicals, such as Caladium 'Florida Cardinal', Coleus 'Crimson Velvet'.


Fortunately, on two counts, white is a natural as well as convenient friend to red (and burgundy). First, there are so many options for white. Besides the Aralia elata 'Silver Umbrellas' in my picture above, consider Eleutherococcus sieboldiana 'Variegata', Buxus sempervirens 'Elegantissima', Hedychium 'Vanilla Ice', Hemerocallis fulva 'Kwanso Variegata', and Weigela florida 'Variegata'. Second, by including some white, you leaven what might otherwise be a dark and heavy stew of purple and red.


In any color (except dark purple, which would be repetitious), partners with narrow or dissected foliage are also surefire. My curtain of Asparagus verticillatus is perhaps the ultimate contrast. Almost any grass, bamboo, iris, willow, or dissected Japanese maple will also work.


There's little chance that any flowering partner plant will clash with or duplicate the smokebush's tiny (and quite ephemeral) blooms and fluffy follow-on "smoke." A free-range Cotinus is large enough to host any climbing or rambing rose whose canes don't exceed eight to ten feet: Flowers of 'Graham Thomas' are yellow, 'Zepherine Droughin' pink, 'Sally Holmes' white, 'Joseph's Coat' are every color from pink to orange to red.


Even more exciting, perhaps, are options for partner clematis. These vines usually fail in soil that becomes dry, but as long as the drainage is acceptable, Cotinus is comfortable in rich and moist circumstances. If you grow your smokebush free-range, almost any clematis that doesn't exceed eight feet or so will be fine. The huge white petals and purple-brown anthers of Clematis henryi are hard to top. The white-with-a-pink-blush flowers of 'Huldine' are profuse and displayed for weeks; this clematis thrives in my deep but unirrigated soil, so seems like an especially good candidate for drought-happy Cotinus.


If you coppice your Cotinus, choose a Group C clematis, which also gets cut back to about eighteen inches each Spring. What about Clematis viticella 'Alba Luxurians'? 



Partner plants for soils

that are lean and fast-draining


Any of the myriad forms of Agave, EuphorbiaNolina, and Yucca are "threefers," providing evergreen and contrastingly spiky foliage that also hides the base of the Cotinus. Colorful and variegated forms also bring white, yellow, blue, or gray.


Juniperus, Pinus, Cedrus, Cupressus, and Rosmarinus each provide a winning contrast of narrow foliage in blue, white, or yellow, and could function, variously, as stumpy-base screeners, foregrounders, or backdrops. It would be difficult to create a livelier combination than to let Juniperus chinensis 'Torulosa' rise up through the back portion of a free-range 'Velvet Cloak'—except if your climate were Zone 7 or 8, in which case you could do the piercing with Cupressus sempervirens 'Swane's Golden'. Hardier palms, such as Rhapidophylum, Sabal, and Trachy- carpus, provide evergreen bulk with their unique combination of leathery substance and feathery grace. Plenty of ornamental grasses also prefer heat, sun, and good drainage. Start your exploration with Cortaderia, Panicum, and Sorghastrum.


Unless you prune them like mad, both 'Mermaid' and 'La Mortola' roses could overwhelm even the largest 'Velvet Cloak'. They survive in-ground only in Zone 7 and warmer, and drier soil would help their hardiness. I keep both as specimens in large containers, so I can shelter them in the greenhouse for the Winter. Someday, perhaps I'll have a 'Velvet Cloak' sited where there's so much room that I can set out one or the other of the roses' containers nearby for the Summer. The golden yellow flowers of 'Mermaid', and the striking blue foliage (and white flowers) of 'La Mortola' would each be marvelous amid the dark Cotinus foliage for size.


Clematis would fail in any well-drained soil that can also become dry, but any number of jasmines would thrive. What drama Jasminum officinale 'Fiona Sunrise' would bring, with its ferny yellow leaves and fragrant white flowers. Provided you prune all stems back each Spring, why not let Campsis 'Morning Calm' poke around through the smoke-free growth of a coppiced or pollarded 'Velvet Cloak'? Its pinnate green leaves and sprays of huge apricot flowers would have a nearly explosive impact amid the dark Cotinus leaves, while the petals' red-burgundy veins are, by contrast, a delicate and subtle match. Passiflora incarnata is also drought-tolerant after establishment; its flowers' burgundy filaments are a direct link to the 'Velvet Cloak' foliage, while the lavender and white corona filaments and petals and sepals are a bright contrast.


Annual vines for heat and dry soil that would enjoy exploring the profuse summer growth of Cotinus include Eccremocarpus scaber. Perhaps this year I'll finally get going with it. My shrubs of 'Velvet Cloak' grow in beds too densely colonized by other shrubs and perennials to make direct introduction of annuals possible. But I could grow Eccremocarpus in a large tub, which I could site within easy striking range of the Cotinus. The dark burgundy 'Velvet Cloak' foliage goes with all the Eccremocarpus cultivars, from red to orange to yellow to cream. To maximize the contrast, I'll try the lightest, 'Tresco Cream'.

Where to use it in your garden

The floral and foliar displays are spectactular as well as enduring, and are as satisfying close at hand (or even with magnification) as from a distance. But when leafless, neither a free-range nor (especially) a well-pruned Cotinus is much of a treat. 


The exception would be Cotinus that is trained as a standard: The form's proud and straight trunk topped by a clearly compact head of branches always seems to outweigh any cold-weather clumsiness when those branches are bare. Cotinus standards, then, can be used as successfully as isolated focuses as part of more diverse schemes in large beds. As is always the case with standards, there is surefire appeal to a line of three or more; a pair flanking a view, pathway, door, or window; a quartet anchoring the corners of a terrace, lawn, or rectangular bed; or a grid of carefully spaced individuals numbering from five to many.


How can a Cotinus that is not a standard welcome all possible attention from late Spring to mid-Fall, but not be in your face late Fall to early Spring? The most helpful choice is not to use a single Cotinus as an isolated specimen, especially in a small bed surrounded by lawn. Instead, grow with a range of companion plants. See "Plant partners," above, for suggestions for underplantings, foregounders, backgrounders, and scandent or twining ornamenters.


As full sun as possible. Almost any soil, from poor-draining clay to lean and rocky soil on steep slopes. Cotinus coggygria is unusually tolerant of different pHs and soils.  

How to handle it

Plant in Spring or Fall. If free-range growth is the goal, formative pruning isn't usually required. If you allow the bush to flower and then "smoke," removal of the panicles after the smoke has cleared isn't really necessary, but ultra-fastidious gardeners should feel free.


Allow the shrub to grow on its own for two or three years before you implement the extensive pruning needed for any of the training schemes in the "Another option—or two!" box, below.


The shrub produces new stems from the base, much like a lilac. Don't hesitate to remove any—young or old—to control overall size or to reveal a simpler and more dramatic array of just a few larger stems. You can do this at almost any time.


Because Cotinus resprouts so readily from the very base, the shrub is a natural for growing at the limits of its usual hardiness—Zone 4—where Winter can be so severe that some or even much of the above-ground growth could be killed by the cold. As long as the base is heavily mulched or even mounded with soil, replacement shoots should appear when weather has warmed. As is typical for maximizing hardiness, stack the deck in the shrub's favor by establishing in soil, and on terrain, that is already very well-draining, by planting on a slope, and in soil that is free-draining even at the expense of diminished nutrient value. Here, too, Cotinus provides every assistance: The shrub tolerates lean soil that tends to be dry, as would often be the case in its native haunts of southern Europe, central Asia, and the Far East. Further, Cotinus is propagated by cuttings, not by grafting, so mounding the base over with soil might simply cause stems to send out additional roots. The result would be a colony of Cotinus, not just an individual, which will be yet more insurance that any surviving portions can quickly resume and sustain growth come Spring.


In such a situation, wait to do Spring clean-up until new leaves or stems begin to emerge; any stems or stem tips that don't produce foliage are dead and, so, are all the more easy to identify and remove.

How to handle it: Another option—or two!

If you're training as a coppice or pollard, do that pruning in late Winter or early Spring. Cotinus isn't quick out of the gate in the Spring, so there's no rush.


If your goal is to keep the shrub narrow—free-range Cotinus is usually as wide or wider than they are tall—then try coppicing. The resultant stems tend to grow much more vertically (although they can sprawl about later in the season). Foliage on the new stems is reported as being somewhat larger and even more deeply pigmented, but given how dark 'Velvet Cloak' leaves are even on free-range plants, this is, for once, not as hoped-for a result as is usually the case. Instead, view coppicing primarily as a tactic to control size and overall habit, not to enhance coloring.


It's typical to see coppiced Cotinus with basal stubs and stumps that are a foot or two high. This is quite a contrast (and an unsightly one) with, say, coppices of Siberian dogwood, which perform beautifully when cut back to the lowest possible nubby base. If the Siberian dogwood coppice could be called a full coppice, then let's call the Cotinus coppice a half one. The intended benefit is that the new stems still grow vertically, but not quite as fast, high, or floppily as can happen with a full coppice. Over the years, try both degrees of coppicing and see how your 'Velvet Cloak' performs with each.


One advantage to growing a Cotinus as a multi-stem pollard instead of as a coppice is that the new growth is usually markedly less "waterspouty." By pollarding, you can create a multi-headed shrub with appealing exposed lower trunks, whose overall look is of a group of deep burgundy "poofs" of foliage levitating several feet in the air. If you train Cotinus as a single-head pollard (in which case it would be called a standard), its performance will probably be intermediate between the skyrocketing shoots of a coppice and the more restrained shoots of a multi-head pollard.


Another experiment in determining the vigor of stems produced as a result of pruning your pollard: You could perform a half pollard (leaving lengthy lower stem portions) as well as a full pollard (cutting all stems down as low as possible). Of course, you'll need to full-pollard every other year or so, lest you leave so much growth year after year that your pollard is nearly the size of the free-range shrub.  


For all of these options, resist the urge to pinch branches if they have become overly-long stems; the resultant high-altitude side-branching will only look clunky. Instead, next year try being proactive, by giving your Cotinus the woody version of a "Chelsea chop." This an early-season pinch-back of the new growth of perennials in May; it's a handy reminder to do this when the Chelsea Flower Show is on. If you pinch new stems of Cotinus at the same time (or whenever they are still less than a foot high), you'll achieve a similar benefit: Denser and, overall, less floppy and bulky growth. And, in the case of the Cotinus, you'd still retain the interesting thrusting verticality of its new stems, which have a casual but still organ-pipe-like effect.  


Still more training options are possible. Whether you choose a half or full coppice or pollard, you don't have to cut all the stems back in the same season. Cutting back just half will let the remainder develop flowers and smoke. Those stems will be markedly shorter than stems produced by the pruning; unless your goal is a "high concept" look with the lower flowering stems in front backed by the high-shooting new stems from the pruning, it's safer to intersperse the two. Then, the smoke will be evenly pierced by spires of non-flowering leafy stems. This is the way to produce the same textural excitement—sharply defined leaves and flowers poking up through pink smoke—with just one plant instead of the dozens and, even, hundreds that are used when achieving the same effect herbaceously. See "Quirks and special cases," below.


Cotinus produces basal shoots regularly. If you're training the upper growth as a pollard or standard, for which you'd naturally like clear stems beneath, it's a regular task to keep these basal shoots pruned away. If you form your pollard or standard with basal shoots in mind, you could try to form those upper canopies of growth higher than otherwise to make room for a ground-level display of basal growth, while still leaving some intervening trunk exposed. Depending on your choices in when to prune and how much, the results could be smoky top growth with smoke-free basal, or vice versa; or non-flowering growth top and bottom, but with one (or the other) tighter and denser, the other more blowsy and casual. If dense basal growth is your goal, then the more pinching the better. Unlike top growth, where mid-season tip pinching will create unsightly clumps of side branching amid the otherwise soaring spires, tip-pinching of basal growth is likely only to further encourage formation of a tight and (at least for a Cotinus) smooth-surfaced mound of foliage.


Lastly—no, reallyCotinus could be grown as a hedge. Plant two to four feet apart. If you have enough room—remember that 'Velvet Cloak' could become ten to fifteen feet high and wide—let the hedge grow free-range, so that it can flower and then smoke: You'll have a very substantial smoke screen, as it were. If your goal is a relatively compact hedge, half-coppicing will produce growth that's largely vertical and that, by September, anyway, could be eight to ten feet tall. Or you could try pruning Cotinus as you would privet: during the Summer, to force shorter side branches all along a permanent block of main stems. Only plant a Cotinus hedge where the degree of sun (full is absolutely the best) and soil conditions are uniform for the entire length. Then you have the best chance of consistent response to whichever pruning strategy you implement.

Quirks and special cases

The pink and smoky Summer performance of 'Velvet Cloak' isn't unique only to woody ornamentals. Some grasses also produce billowing, profuse, and much-branched pinkish panicles that create a smoky effect every bit as exciting. Gardeners in Zone 7 and warmer can celebrate the best of them, muhly grass, Muhlenbergia capillaris; its display is as startling a pure and bright pink as that of Cotinus at its best. The pink or (sometimes) pinkish-red display of purple love grass, Eragrostis spectabilis, is muted only in comparison. Especially when planted en masse, with coarser-leaved perennials poking through for contrast, Eragrostis is the equal of Cotinus—and is usually much longer lasting. Even better, the "smoking season" of Cotinus is usually over by September, whereas Muhlenbergia and Eragrostis are usually still smoking well into the Fall. For a stunning such display, visit the section of the High Line at about 19th Street from August into Fall.


Are there any ornamentals that bring pink smoke to the Spring garden? 


Coppiced bushes that are able to respond vigorously often produce stems that are so long—eight feet, say—that they can wave about, and even splay about, with more enthusiasm than grace. Further, the intensity of the foliage color lessens dramatically on the lower portion of these stems. (Looking through the other end of the telescope, the foliage color of the top portion of the ever-lengthening stem remains fantastic.)


The stumps and stubs of shrubs that are coppiced are clunky looking in Winter and early Spring—but the tall whip-like stems that can soar eight feet or more above them have their own eccentric panache. 


See "Where to use it," "Plant partners," and the second "How to handle it" boxes for tactics for siting and "contexting" coppiced bushes of 'Velvet Cloak' so that their lengthy first-year stems and their seasonal progression of foliage color are celebrated, while the awkward basal stumps are finessed. 


Although the straight species of Cotinus coggygria is also gardenworthy, the appeal of forms with colorful foliage has, admittedly, provided stiff competition. 


For decades, interest centered on foliage that was darker purple, and stayed darker longer through Summer's high heat and strong sun. Earlier dark-leaved forms, often with confusingly duplicative names such as  'Atropurpureus', 'Foliis Purpureis', and 'Rubrifolius', have long been surpassed by 'Royal Purple' (introduced by Lombarts Nursery in Boskoop, Holland way back in 1953) and 'Velvet Cloak' (introduced by the former Cole Nursery in Circleville, Ohio). 'Royal Purple' is sometimes described as having a narrow red or pink margin around the leaves, in contrast to the solid-burgundy leaves of 'Velvet Cloak', but other sources (Michael Dirr, in particular) question that the two cultivars are, in fact, distinct. The British cultivar 'Notcutt's Variety' is reported as not maintaining its purple during the Summer heat typical of eastern North America.


Another metric for development has been the coloring, endurance, lateness, and profusion of the "smoke." 'Daydream' may have only green foliage, but its dense, late appearing, long lasting, prolifically produced pink panicles are reported to be the best of any Cotinus. 'Pink Champagne' is most likely a compact version of 'Daydream'. 


Still another characteristic to highlight is compactness. 'Young Lady' matures only to four to six feet; its foliage is green and its panicles are profuse but not notably different in color (smoky pink) from those of the straight species.


Alas, there isn't yet a single cultivar that is superior in foliage, smoke, and habit—a dwarf, big-panicled, purple-leaved smokebush trifecta, as it were. But the end of the road for fancy forms of Cotinus wasn't at all at hand. In fact, two other breakthroughs broaden the range of cultivars not just by degree—more purple foliage, better pink 'smoke', more compact habit—but by core characteristic. First, 'Grace', a hybrid of 'Velvet Cloak' with Cotinus obovatus, that recalls both of its parents. 'Grace' has larger foliage and overall size reminiscent of Cotinus obovatus, while the larger panicles and purple foliage that fades to a distinctive blue-green are a nod to 'Velvet Cloak'. Second, 'Golden Spirit'. This is the most radical cultivar to date, in that it has abandoned the entire greenish-purple-pink-blue foliage palette entirely in favor of a solid and unfading bright yellow suffused with green. Although the patent states that this cultivar doesn't flower, many nurseries report that its "smoke" is similar to that of the species. Best, then, to cut 'Golden Spirit' back each Spring, if only to preclude the clash of the pinkish smoke with the bright gold foliage.


The broadening of Cotinus cultivars shows no sign of slowing. For my money, though, even the largest garden might feature just three choices from the current bounty: Even after many years, 'Velvet Cloak' or 'Royal Purple' still trump all the other dark-leaved forms. 'Grace' trumps C. obovatus, and is strikingly different from any other C. coggygria form to merit inclusion. And lastly, 'Golden Spirit', whose bright foliage is unique in the genus.


If, however, a truly dwarf form (two to four feet, say) that also had purple foliage became available, I'd make room—especially if I could convince a nursery to graft it on high understock to make a standard.




By cuttings.

Native habitat

Cotinus coggygria is native to southern Europe through central Asia to China. 

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