ISSUE 35  |  Hardworking Gardens

Field Guide: Smoke Bush

September 05, 2016 6:00 AM

BY Kendra Wilson

Smoke Bush (Cotinus): “Stands Out in a Crowd”

The color of the leaves, the contrast with other plants, the light shining through: for many this is the point of Smoke Bush. For others, it’s all about the flowers that look like puffs of smoke at the tips of this singular bush.


Above: Looking hazy, a smoke bush anchors a garden bed in Vermont. For more of this garden, see Designer Visit: A Burst of Color in the Green Mountains. Photograph by Susan Teare courtesy of JMMDS.


Above: Photograph by Kendra Wilson.

The flowers are insignificant, but their effect is of a general fluff around the darkness of Cotinus coggyria. After flowering, the flower skeletons linger. The smoke bush works hard at every stage as a foil for other colors: it flatters everything.


Above: Photogrpah by Kendra Wilson.

Cotinus is very good value in summer’s green. C. ‘Velvet Cloak’ turns from red to purple to crushed berry, and always a hint of green in its own foliage.

The way to keep the leaves looking their biggest, fullest, and most intensely colored, is by coppicing them in spring (cutting them right back to the base). The drawback? No smoke.


Above: In a Brooklyn backyard, a smoke bush is planted in a barrel in full sun. “The barrel will limit the smoke tree’s growth, but it’s been doing really well,” says garden designer Anishka Clarke. for more of this project, see Before & After: A Modern Brooklyn Backyard on a Budget.

Cheat Sheet

  • A round, dark bush at the back of the border, cotinus is a wonderful dark backdrop.
  • Grow a contrasting viticella clematis through it, from blue c. ‘Perle d’Azur’ to white c. ‘Alba Luxurians’. (Choose a late variety that can be pruned at the same time as its host.)
  • Place a smoke bush somewhere between you and the light source. Sun shining throught the leaves will light up the garden.

Keep It Alive

  • Poor soil will keep a smoke bush on its toes: the bush will be more compact and the color more intense.
  • Smoke bush will sulk if it does not have enough light and space.
  • Hardy to zone 5.


Above: Cotinus is friend to the florist, as both sides of the leaf can be put to good use. The underside, as Sophia Moreno-Bunge notes, is “opalescent” against the purple. Photograph by Sophia Moreno-Bunge.

(For more of the above floral arrangement, see DIY Floral Arrangement: Smoke Bush and Queen Anne’s Lace.)


Above: Cotinus coggyria ‘Grace’ is not so dark and velvety: purple-red leaves color to orange-red in autumn. Cotinus coggyria ‘Royal Purple’ is perhaps the most popular variety and holds an RHS AGM. In other words: an Award of Garden Merit has been given by the Royal Horticultural Society because of its all-round garden worthiness. Photograph by Douglas Lyle Thompson for Gardenista.

Wondering how to use smoke bush in the garden? See Garden Designer Visit: A Low Maintenance Brooklyn Backyard by Eco Landscapes.