View full sizeThe OregonianCan you believe the frothy plumes on this purple-leaved smoke bush? A ‘Golden Spirit’ smoke bush in a container provides a pleasing contrast.

With the smoke bush (

Cotinus coggygria

), each year there’s a big decision to make: to cut or not to cut.

Cutting it back sharply – not just light pruning but whacking it off about a foot high, a technique known as stooling — controls its growth and produces lush, deeply colored foliage.

But the pruning also means there’s no smoke where there’s fire: That is, because flowers grow only on old wood, hard pruning prevents the eye-catching smoky plumes — actually, the silky hairs on the faded flower stalks — from developing till the next year.

It’s a tough choice. Unpruned, the smoke bush becomes a large, multistemmed shrub 10 to 15 feet tall and wide.

As with Hamlet’s dilemma, though, there’s really no middle course. If you try to have it both ways — to prune it in between — the shrub winds up looking like a clipped poodle, with leggy growth sporting foliage only at the ends.

The smoke bush has a number of fine cultivars, such as ‘Royal Purple,’ with maroon leaves, and ‘Golden Spirit’ with yellow leaves. It tolerates quite a bit of drought when established.

If you have the space, consider the majestic American smoke tree,

C. obovatus

, which at 20 to 30 feet tall makes a huge statement in fall, though its summer plumes are not as showy as those of

C. coggygria

View full sizeThe Oregonian’Royal Purple’ smoke bush


‘Grace’ is a large hybrid of the two speices, with translucent leaves that look especially lovely when backlit by the sun.

Attractive companions for a wine-red smoke bush include

Rosa glauca

, with glaucous blue leaves and scarlet stems and veins; or the ‘Carol Mackie’ daphne (




‘Carol Mackie’), with its variegated leaves.

See Great Plant Picks for more info on

and the

which the horticultural experts behind the website have selected as worthy plants for Northwest gardens.

– HGNW staff

If you want to automatically receive a daily homes and gardens tip, sign up here.

Pruning smoke trees

Timing is important for pruning a smoke tree. If you prune it at the wrong time,
the tree reacts to the stress of pruning by growing wildly and haphazardly.
Here is some advice from a gardening blog.
When to Prune a Smoke Tree
Trimming smoke trees can be done in late winter or very early spring. As a general rule, pruning smoke trees for shape is done in very early spring when the plant is still mostly dormant and the process will create less stress. Summer flowering trees such as smoke tree need to be pruned before flower buds have shown. The rule for pruning deciduous flowering plants states that if it flowers after June 1, like the smoke bush, you need to prune in early spring. For a tree, you need to start young and remove all the extra stems, leaving only one strong central leader. You can shape it at this point and keep the plant below a certain height. General pruning will include removing old wood, diseased or broken plant material and managing any suckers and water spouts. Any crossed branches need to be removed to prevent crowding and rubbing.

How to Care for a Smoke Tree

smoke tree image by Gail Ranney from

Blossoming trees enhance yards and landscapes by adding colorful blossoms along with foliage. One type of blossoming tree, the smoke tree (Cotinus coggygria), produces small clusters of blossoms resembling puffs of smoke along the branches. Many smoke trees grow to a height and width of 15 feet, forming a rounded shape at maturity. These trees, also known as smoke bushes, exhibit deep, purple leaves when grown in full sunlight to partial shade. Healthy specimens require careful attention during planting and establishment.

Plant your smoke tree in an area of full sun in your landscape. The sun causes the tree to form leaves in deep shades of purple. Areas that receive partial shade encourage softer-colored leaves. Provide rich, well-drained soil for your smoke tree. Incorporate compost or commercial fertilizer into the soil at the time of planting to ensure adequate soil nutrients and loose soil that drains easily. Use a shovel to mix the additives with the existing soil.

Water your smoke tree regularly. These trees require moist soil to flourish. Keep the soil slightly moist near the roots at all times. Add mulch over the roots in arid or windy climates.

Prune your smoke tree once a year to encourage healthy growth. Remove dead branches and limbs as they appear. Cut back the tree once a year, preferably in the early spring. Create a round, bushy shape by removing all of the stems to allow two or three buds near the base to remain. When allowing the tree to grow to its full height, cut back branches that appear overgrown or spindly.

Place compost around the base of the trunk in late fall and early winter. Use this side dressing to provide added warmth during winter months and to increase soil nutrients in the spring. Remove remaining compost before the tree begins showing signs of new growth in the spring.

Look for signs of mildew on the leaves of your smoke tree. These trees often suffer from various types of mildew. Wilting leaves and powdery residue signal the presence of mildew. Treat this condition with a fungicide formulated for use on smoke trees. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions when applying fungicide to your smoke tree.

Trimming Smoke Trees – How And When To Prune A Smoke Tree

Smoke tree is an ornamental shrub to small tree that is grown for the bright purple or yellow leaves and the spring flowers that mature and “puff” out as if they were clouds of smoke. Smoke trees tend to have a rangy, splayed growth habit. Pruning smoke trees annually will help make the plant more compact and strengthen the limbs.

When to Prune a Smoke Tree

Trimming smoke trees can be done in late winter or very early spring.

As a general rule, pruning smoke trees for shape is done in very early spring when the plant is still mostly dormant and the process will create less stress. Summer flowering trees such as smoke tree need to be pruned before flower buds have shown. The rule for pruning deciduous flowering plants states that if it flowers after June 1, like the smoke bush, you need to prune in early spring.

Smoke tree pruning can also be done in late winter if you wish to rejuvenate the plant and

cut it all the way to the ground.

Pruning Smoke Trees

The method used when trimming smoke trees depends upon whether you want a tree or bush.

How to Prune a Smoke Tree as a Tree

For a tree, you need to start young and remove all the extra stems, leaving only one strong central leader. You can shape it at this point and keep the plant below a certain height.

General pruning will include removing old wood, diseased or broken plant material and managing any suckers and water spouts. Any crossed branches need to be removed to prevent crowding and rubbing.

How to Prune a Smoke Tree as a Bush

Smoke tree pruning for a bush is much less laborious. You may allow the extra branches and simply prune limbs to manage shape. The natural splayed nature of growth can be amended by cutting the plant almost to the ground in late winter. This will force new growth and tighten the overall look of the bush.

When you remove any of the main trunks, always cut to the base of the tree. Very small, unproductive twigs and branches should be removed from the center to create air flow and allow established wood room to grow.

Proper Cutting Techniques

Prior to pruning you need to make certain your implements are sharp and clean to prevent spreading diseases.

When you need to remove a limb or large piece of wood, cut cleanly at a slight angle ¼-inch outside the branch collar. The branch collar is the swelling in the parent branch from which the secondary branch grew. Cutting this way prevents cutting into the parent wood and introducing pathogens.

It is rarely necessary to tip prune when pruning smoke trees, but if removing small amounts of wood always cut back to just before a growth node. This will prevent dead ends and create balance when the node sprouts.

Smoke Bush

If you’ve got a spot in the yard for something really eye-catching and a little different, consider smoke bush (Cotinus). The colorful foliage of this unusual ornamental is attractive throughout the season, but really heats up in fall, deepening to brilliant shades of purple, red, or orange-yellow, depending on the variety. As the large, loose clusters of tiny greenish flower blossoms fade, the flower stalks get longer and by midsummer are covered with fuzzy purple or pink hairs. These feathery trusses look like puffs of smoke — hence the common name smoke bush or smoke tree. Even with these showy blossoms and vibrantly colored leaves, smoke bush is an easy plant to work into the landscape because it combines so readily with other perennials.

Striking as a single plant, it is spectacular in a group. “This plant is definitely underused,” says Alan Summers, owner of Carroll Gardens, a retail and mail-order nursery in Westminster, Maryland. “It just marches out of here. Once people see it, they take it home.”

Smoke bush is hardy in virtually all regions of the United States from USDA Hardiness Zone 4a through 11. However, it’s most prized in the colder areas where few other plants can compete with its dramatic foliage color.

Cotinus Selections

You’ll see smoke bush described in catalogs and garden references as both a shrub and a tree. Left to its natural inclinations, it will grow into a tree. The Eurasian species, Cotinus coggygria, reaches a height of 15 feet; C. obovatus, a native of the southeast, is even taller, reaching 25 to 30 feet. In the garden, smoke bush can be trained as a single- or multi-trunked tree. “But that’s a lot of work,” says Summers. Treat it as a large shrub, he advises, and you’ll have a full, nicely rounded plant that’s easily maintained.

Another recommendation from Summers is to start with a named variety. Bill Funkhouser, assistant director of horticulture at Wayside Gardens in Hodges, South Carolina, agrees. “Although the American native has good fall color and I’d like to see it grown more,” he notes, “you want the best show you can get out of your plants, and a selected variety will give you the best blooming, the best form and the most consistent coloration.”

There are several fine selections of C. coggygria available; the shades and intensity of the colors can vary somewhat depending on soil conditions and climate.

‘Velvet Cloak’ has reddish purple leaves that hold their color well through the season, turning to a brilliant deep red in fall. It produces many purply pink “smokes.” “It’s just spectacular all season long,” says Summers.

The leaves of ‘Royal Purple’ start off red, deepening to a rich purple that stays vibrant through the summer, then changing to shades of red, yellow, and orange in fall. “It’s a little more compact than some of the other cultivars,” notes Funkhouser, “and the foliage doesn’t fade.” The blossom clusters are purple.

The hardiest of the purple-leaved smoke bushes, ‘Nordine’, has large, pinkish blossoms and purplish red leaves that turn a rich green or orange-yellow in fall. “By fall, the blossom clusters are huge and showy, and the leaves have good color,” says Summers.

Hardier still are the green-leaved smoke bushes, and ‘Daydream’, with blue-green leaves that turn red-orange in fall, is a very attractive variety. Its pink smokes stay showy for a long period of time.

A pink hybrid, ‘Grace’, is now available in the United States. A cross between Cotinus obovatus and ‘Velvet Cloak,’ it has won several awards in England. “The 4- to 6-inch leaves are about 1/3 larger than those of other cultivars and the huge smokes are almost a fluorescent pink,” says Rick Eggimann, owner of Hollandia Gardens, wholesale growers in Hubbard, Oregon. The purplish red foliage turns red-orange in fall. ‘Grace ‘is a very vigorous grower, however, and tends to be lanky rather than bushy, he notes. It requires some vigilance with the pruning shears during the growing season to keep it looking good.

Whether you plant one smoke bush or group several together, choose the location carefully. “It’s too large to be a foundation plant, and I wouldn’t simply park it in the middle of the lawn as a single specimen, either,” says Alan Summers. “Think of it as a lilac in terms of placement. It’s a good screening plant and works well on the edge of the property, perhaps dressed down with another shrub.

Buying and Planting

As with any shrub, buy your plant from a knowledgeable retail or mail-order nursery. You’ll probably find the greatest selection in spring, but smoke bush is available throughout the season and fall is an excellent time to plant shrubs in most areas of the country.

If you purchase yours at a local nursery, you’ll find it either in a container, or balled-and-burlapped. The container-grown plants can be anywhere from 10 inches to 2 to 3 feet in height, depending on the age of the plant. A balled-and-burlapped plant is older and therefore larger (typically 4 to 5 feet tall), but more expensive. Select a disease-free, healthy plant, and don’t be put off by leaves and blossoms that look small — they may be somewhat stunted if the plant has been container-grown, but will reach normal size the following season.

Catalogs describe their offerings by height or size of container; plants from a 1-gallon container are usually 1 to 2 feet tall, and those from a 2-gallon container a foot or so larger. Your mail-order plant will typically arrive with plastic wrapped around its roots and a small ball of soil; some companies ship the plant in the container.

The smoke bush’s few requirements are full sun and a well-drained soil that’s low in fertility. In fact, it thrives in dry, rocky locaions. Proper drainage is critical to avoid problems with Verticillium wilt, which will cause sudden dying back of the branches. If the plant does become infected with this soilborne fungus, it must be replaced. Otherwise, smoke bush is relatively disease- and insect-free. In California, it is valued for its resistance to oak root fungus (Armillaria mellea).

Growing Smoke Bush

After transplanting, water the shrub during dry spells to help it get established. Alan Summers recommends fertilizing lightly in spring with a handful of organic plant food, especially for the first two or three years. “But it doesn’t like a rich soil,” he cautions. If you overfertilize, you may not get the intense fall color and the growth will be coarse and lanky. “Also,” notes Bill Funkhouser, “where the plants are growing along the edge of a lawn, be especially careful not to overwater and overfertilize the grass.” The shrubs could keep growing into fall and get damaged by cold weather.

Though hardy to -30° F (zone 4a), smoke bush may die to the ground or snowline at the colder limits of its range. Elsewhere, leaves and stems might be nicked by frost.

You can also cut the shrub to the ground in fall and mulch it. In fact, this treatment can be effective no matter where you live, notes Harold Greer of Greer Gardens in Eugene, Oregon, a nursery that offers both species and a good selection of varieties of smoke bush. “It’s a fast grower, so in one season you’ll get a dynamic-looking plant full of healthy new growth that’s saturated with color,” he says. It flowers on second-year growth, however, so you won’t get the “smokes.” Otherwise, some simple rejuvenation pruning in spring to cut out the oldest, woodiest stems is all the shrubs need.

The smoketree (sometimes also called smoke tree or smoke bush) is an awesome specimen tree to have in your garden or landscape. As trees go it’s very compact, usually topping out at 10 to 12 feet tall and wide. It can reach as high as 20 feet, but even this is small enough to fit into most gardens, as long as it’s the main focal point.

Growing smoketrees is very rewarding. Smoketrees have a truly unique look and vibrant color all year long. The color of the foliage varies from type to type, but it tends to go through several color changes from spring to fall.

The real draw, and the source of the tree’s name, are the flowers that appear in the spring and last all summer. Usually in shades of white to red, these flowers are long, branching filaments that grow outward from the branches and, from a distance, give the whole tree the look of being shrouded in smoke.

Smoketree Varieties

Smoketree by Bob Guyer

Smoketrees come in quite a few varieties, and the differences are usually down to the color of the foliage and flowers. Here are some of the most popular smoketree varieties:

  • Royal Purple – Purple flowers and red foliage in the spring that turns to purple in the summer and bright red, yellow, and orange in autumn.
  • Pink Champagne – Foliage that’s mostly green but bordered with pink that turns bright red and orange in the fall.
  • Nordine – Purple to bronze leaves that turn green and orange in the fall. Especially big pink flowers.
  • Velvet Cloak – Red to purple leaves that stay bright all summer long and change to vibrant red in the fall.
  • Daydream – Green to blue foliage that turns orange to red in the fall. Long lasting pink flowers.

Photo by Ross Dunn

How To Care for Your Smoketree

Smoketree care is pretty low maintenance. As a rule, smoketrees are hardy in USDA zones 5-11, though some are hardy down to zone 4. They may die down to the ground in very cold winters and come back in the spring. The best soil for growing smoketrees is high in pH and not too rich. Some compost is a good idea, but too much fertilizer will keep your trees from blooming to their full potential. Smoketrees can tolerate partial shade, but they bloom best in full sun. They need watering to get through dry spells, but they’re quite drought tolerant and actually bloom more spectacularly in slightly dry conditions. Smoketrees have delicate bark, so be careful not to nick them when mowing nearby.

How To Prune a Smoketree

Pruning a smoketree once a year will keep it healthy and looking good. The best time to prune a smoketree is late winter or early spring, before new buds have formed. Smoketrees are fast growers and will come back from even heavy pruning. Remove old and weak branches and trim back longer or overcrowded stems to make for a rounded shape and to encourage new growth.

Where to Buy Smoketrees?

If you are in the market to buy a smoketree, you can always check your local garden center. While they may be difficult to find, you do have the option of finding smoketree shrubs or smoketree seeds online at a fraction of the price.

Cotinus coggygria “The Smoke Bush”

Cotinus requires little or no pruning which makes it easy to grow. In late winter/early spring around February/March time a light prune can be undertaken if needed to remove diseased, spindly or crossing branches and then a feed is an option. Equally Cotinus can be left for several years with little or no attention.

Cotinus when grown in its preferred conditions can be vigorous and get large. This means it may outgrows it allotted spot or is overshadowing neighbouring shrubs and plants. If this occurs, Cotinus can be hard pruned if the shrub is mature and it will tolerate being cut back hard or coppiced and this will keep it in check although at the expense of flowers. Hard pruning will also have the effect of producing larger leaves that year. Cotinus will respond well to clipping and I have seen it grown to good effect clipped into a round lollipop shape, which makes a nice contrast from green topiary. Winter is the best time to prune or trim Cotinus, around February when the shrub is dormant and during a mild spell.

If Cotinus is not the ideal shrub for your garden, check out shrubs and bushes; spring flowering shrubs; summer flowering shrubs; shrubs with autumn and winter interest; and evergreen shrubs.

Cotinus comes into leaf late in spring but the compensation is the great autumn colour. Cotinus looks good with many border plants, blue and pink Clematis, with vibrant greens, as in the image centre which is with Alchemilla mollis, and with strong blues such as Agapanthus and good with Crocosmia; and also with other garden shrubs by way of contrast as in image top left with Cornus.

Cotinus is fully hardy and easy to grow. The new foliage in spring looks lovely and particularly beautiful with raindrops on it. Late summer the shrub, if provided with enough warmth and sun, will flower producing the delicate smoke effect and then put on spectacular autumn colour; a great garden shrub.

Smoke bush: How to grow

Cotinus comes from the Greek for wild olive, kotinus. In days gone by these shrubs flowered in Britain only after a long, hot summer. But warmer conditions mean that flowers are often produced year after year once the plant is mature.

These frothy, feathery panicles cover the shrub, forming a soft haze in summer. As the flowers fade they turn silver-white and this is where the common name “smoke bush” comes from. The flowers literally look like puffs of smoke.

There are some excellent varieties on offer besides the widely available and acclaimed ‘Royal Purple’. The hybrids ‘Grace’ and ‘Flame’ have larger, more oval leaves, are vigorous, tree-like growers and colour up well in autumn thanks to their American blood. ‘Grace’ has purple-tinted leaves that turn scarlet and ‘Flame’ has blue-green leaves that turn orange-red.

Two recent introductions flower when very young. ‘Golden Spirit’ has lime-yellow leaves, but it will keep its bright colour only in full sun: some feel that the pink flowers clash with the foliage.

‘Young Lady’ is a green-leaved, free-flowering form. It is referred to by one nurseryman as “a poodle in a pot” because the flower heads are almost top-heavy. Both are perhaps more suitable for smaller gardens.

Growing tips

All cotinus need full sun and warmth to perform. For panicles of fluffy flowers, give this shrub the space to shine in an open, warm position. Leave it to develop into a large bush or small tree and remove dead wood in spring.

To encourage foliage at the expense of flowers, cut back or coppice it in late spring. However, your cotinus must be well-established before you embark on hard pruning.

Propagate from softwood cuttings taken from new growth in spring. Cover the pot with polythene, or use a covered propagator, and place in a shady position for several weeks to prevent wilting.

Plants can also be layered. Peg down a young stem in autumn using a staple or wire. This should produce roots by the following summer; the stem can then be severed with a spade and potted up or planted out in autumn.

Good companions

Cotinus comes into leaf later than most shrubs. But the whorls of round leaves, once they do appear, look very crisp, almost as though they’ve been meticulously cloud-pruned. So the rounded contours are easily integrated into mixed herbaceous borders of later-flowering plants.

The dark leaves of ‘Royal Purple’ flatter paler, softer colours and give extra depth to the sky-blue Clematis ‘Perle d’Azur’ if it is allowed to scramble through the branches. Cotinus is also a good backdrop for blue agapanthus. Pale apricots, pinks, blues, whites, creams and lemon-yellows can be unassertive in the garden.

But they are brought to life if planted close to wine-purple foliage. ‘Buff Beauty’ roses, white Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’, beige pennisetums or asters will sparkle late into the year against the sultry foliage.

The leaves are also dramatic enough to mix with strong colours, so pink, orange or warm yellow cactus dahlias look sensational. Alternatively, you could use cotinus with a hot, red mixture of crocosmias, cannas and salvias.

Where To Buy

Duchy of Cornwall Nursery, Lostwithiel, Cornwall (01208 872668; www.duchyofcornwall

Burncoose Nurseries, Redruth, Cornwall (01209 860316;

Reader offer

Buy a C. coggygria ‘Royal Purple’ for £27.95 (two for £39.90). Call 0870 950 5926, quoting ref.TL413, or send cheques made payable to Telegraph Garden to Royal Purple Offer, Rookery Farm, Joys Bank, Holbeach St Johns, Spalding, PE12 8SG. Delivery within 28 days.

Previous How to Grow: Chinese Plumbago

How NOT to prune a smoke tree

By Laura on August 1, 2014

Not all of our home improvement projects are successful… especially in the landscaping and garden department! Today we’re talking about how NOT to prune a smoke tree, and also some ideas on how we’re going to try to fix our pruning mistakes. Plus a fun surprise twist at the end of the post, so keep reading!

Last time we talked about the smoke tree in our backyard was in May, when we reported on how we pruned it during the winter to try and control its growth.

You can see in the right-side photo above that the tree was looking pretty sparse. At that point in the spring, we weren’t seeing much regrowth and were hoping the tree would fill in more over the summer. Well…be careful what you wish for. Only a few months later, we’ve got a smoky monster on our hands.

Instead of a cute and tidily-pruned smoke tree in our backyard, it’s now growing up as high as the playroom windows. And it’s actually engulfing the little Japanese maple and the ornamental cherry tree and other plants in that corner of the garden. The difference in last summer’s tree growth and this summer’s is crazy – check out this side-by-side comparison.

As you can see, our pruning efforts had the opposite effect that we’d planned. Instead of keeping the smoke tree nicely shaped and at a reasonable size, we seem to have created an even more out-of-control growth situation. The branches and leaves completely block our dining nook window, keeping us from gazing out at the backyard garden during meals. Not cool.

After we noticed the smoke tree’s unusual (and unexpected) growth earlier this summer, John did some more research to see what might have gone wrong. He found this video that details the proper pruning technique for these kinds of large bushes/small trees, and basically we learned that a smoke tree should be pruned in winter or early spring by trimming at the branching-off point, to keep the tree from over-sprouting. John had instead simply cut the branches at their ends, down to the height we wanted the tree to be. He didn’t realize that pruning the tree this way would actually cause its growth to quickly surpass the smaller size we were going for.

Source: Plant Amnesty

In order to make sure this doesn’t happen again, we’re planning to reprune Old Smoky – the correct way – this winter or next spring. We can’t cut it any further this summer, or it will just rebound and continue to get even bigger. So we’ve got to live with this behemoth thing for now. We’re even thinking of changing things up and converting the tree to a bush with a different pruning method. The previous owner tied the tree to a trellis and may have been purposefully training it to grow larger, but we’re definitely interested in a smaller incarnation, so we may try the bush route. (Update: We did it! Check out how we pruned the smoke tree into a bush here.)

There is a silver lining in this whole situation, though. During dinner one night recently at our dining nook table, we were looking out the tree-filled window and lamenting our loss of a garden view, when I saw something nestled among the branches.

Apparently an overgrown smoke tree is the perfect environment for a robin’s nest! This little bird had set up headquarters in a central spot where several branches come together. It was such a nice surprise to discover this, and it made us not mind the big tree so much. We still miss our view of the garden, but this sight is pretty special too.

And, a few days after discovering the robin and her nest, we saw that she had a (very hungry) baby in there!

It’s been amazing to watch this all unfold right in front of our window. The toddler in particular likes to watch the robin’s comings and goings while she eats dinner – it’s a great nature lesson for her. We’re trying to be as respectful as possible and not scare the robin away with our presence on the other side of the glass, but for the most part she’s been more interested in feathering her nest and feeding her baby than with our paparazzi behavior.

Hopefully when we prune the tree in the next several months, the robin will still come back after her winter migration and build her nest here again. We love having her family as our backyard neighbors!

Have you had any landscaping mishaps this summer? Or surprise bird sightings?

(linked at Remodelaholic)

August 1, 2014
category: Landscaping + Garden • Tags: back yard, diy, garden, landscaping, pruning

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  • Julie says:

    I’m not sure what you expected to happen… Most Cotinus is 10-15′ tall at maturity! Instead of fighting it, try putting the right plant in the right place.

  • RobA says:

    Julie, I guess if you had read the post completely, you would have seen that she didn’t the Purple Smoke, the previous owner did. Calm Down

  • Diana says:

    Thanks for your insightful and interesting post. I too am struggling with a smoketree that I planted about 8 years ago. When I originally planted it I had envisioned a beautiful tall tree growing up near the backyard fence to block the view into my neighbors window. It’s had stunted growth due to the almost solid clay soil that we have where we live. (I felt like we were digging out a large clay pot to place the original plant into!) It’s been only 3 1/2 feet tall all this time and I kinda got used to that. In the meantime I’ve planted a garden all around it. It’s taken 8 years for the roots to breakthrough to the adjacent dug out garden and just this year has started to suddenly grow these large long branches on the outer perimeter of the original planting. Now I have to figure out what to do with it!
    I’m not an expert gardener and don’t pretend to be, I have a real day job and try to blog about food in my spare time. But it’s time to do something about this smokebush, which is what led me to your post. Thanks for the useful info!

  • Sodding Cambridge says:

    I have the same issues with smoke trees. I am glad to know that I am not the only one having trouble! haha

  • Sodding Cambridge says:

    It’s really nice before and after pictures with the Robin’s nest. Mama Robin and Baby Robin! Thanks for Sharing. That was gold

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  • Lindi says:

    We have a Smoke Tree which was once a Smoke bush. Help! How did the whacking almost to the ground affect the Smoke?

  • Ann Mullins says:

    I pruned my smoke bush last year by shortening individual branches.
    The result was very pretty early summer with long bouncing shoots with a tuft of foliage at the end and later clouds of smoke floating up and down, up and down . Now, however the shoots are longer and in the wayand trailing. If I leave them they will break off in bad weather.
    What do I do?

  • Scott says:

    Ann, if you have a look at your smoke tree’s limbs, you will see black spots along each limb. Those are the bud sites.
    Trim the limb at an angle about a half inch above the bud site and the plant will start new growth from that bud.

    If you cut the longer center limbs and leave the lower branches, you can get a flourish of purple leaves and still get the smoky flowers.
    Some people like to have a small bush, so they cut all the limbs to the ground level. You sacrifice flowering but get a compact bush.
    I hope this helps.
    The article tells how not to trim a smoke tree, but it leaves out some detail.

  • christina says:


  • Mari says:

    I have a smoke bush that I planted about 10 years ago. I have never hard pruned it, but I will be removing one lower limb to it’s base next spring before it buds. The tree has a nice overall shape which I think was helped by letting it grow so long without touching it.

  • Katy says:

    I have a young smoke tree and pruned it back this winter. Everything in my yard is starting to sprout and my smoke tree looks like a dead 5’ tall stick. I hope I didn’t kill it and it’s just a “late bloomer!” I live in Northern CA Bay Area so climate is mild here. Fingers crossed and hoping for some new growth! Any advice appreciated.


When looking at the photo of your Smoke Tree (Cotinus coggygria) enlarged, it appears to be the green, rather than the purple, variety. According to the Connon Nursery catalogue (2009), it has reached about its maximum size; 3.5m high, and 3 m wide. Some of the varietals, such as “Royal Purple” or “Young Lady” are smaller, with a mature height and width of 2.5 m. Either way, this species has a rangy growth habit, and should be pruned yearly to maintain a more compact shape. As your smoke tree is mature, and has multiple branching low to the ground, it is really a shrub, and should continue to be pruned that way. Choosing a leader to encourage growth as a tree now, is not recommended.

Smoke trees are a summer flowering shrub, that is, produce flowers on new growth. That means they should be pruned in the late winter or very early spring, while dormant. One advantage of pruning at this time is that the shape and branching can easily be seen. All good practices in pruning start with removing dead and broken branches with a clean, sharp secateur or lopper. If the branches or trunks are large, use a clean, sharp pruning saw. Next, if there are crossed branches rubbing each other, gauge which branch is best to keep, and remove the other one. Rubbing branches can introduce pest and disease. Now also is the time to remove weak branches, suckers from around the tree, and any water sprouts – those long branches that stick straight up and don’t branch on their own. When pruning any shrub, always cut to about 1cm from a growth node, or where buds are evident – that is where the new branching will occur. If it’s a trunk or large branch cut only to where the collar of the branch meets the main stem.

Next, decide how high you want to maintain this shrub. Branches can be pruned to that height over the next two years. Chose half the branches to prune this year, from all areas of the tree (that way is doesn’t look lopsided after pruning) and cut them to a growth node below the approximate height you want. Next year, these branches will have grown, but the branches left alone can then be cut back to the desired height.

Now the entire shrub is at the height you prefer, and should be maintained yearly to that height. This article also suggests that if the smoke tree is too rangy, it can be pruned to just above the ground in late winter, to maintain a tighter growth. I have done this with other shrubs, such as dogwood, to good effect, although I have not done this with Cotinus.

How to Transplant a Smoke Bush

The smoke bush (Cotinus coggygria), commonly referred to as the smoke tree, is a small multi-branched shrub that rarely tops 15 feet in height. In early summer the plant produces small flowers that have long filaments on each blossom cluster. These striking filaments make the shrub appear smokey. The bush also produces tiny berries in the fall. The shrub is available in numerous cultivars that offer a variety of colors to fit any landscape. The smoke bush can be transplanted easily with a few steps. Growth can be severely slowed after transplant for the first year or two. Transplanting should take place in early spring.

Choose a location that offers full sun to transplant the smoke bush. The shrub can tolerate partial shade but for ideal foliage and filament colors the smoke bush should be planted in full sun. Soil that is fertile and nutrient-rich will help yield best transplant results. The smoke bush can withstand nutrient-poor soil conditions but the growth will be slowed.

Dig a hole that is twice the size of the smoke bush root system. Work humus into the soil. Peat moss, leaf mulch or sawdust should be added to the garden soil at a ratio of 50 percent humus with 50 percent garden soil.

Work a pitchfork gently around the base of the smoke bush. Start 2 to 3 feet out from the stems of the bush. Insert the pitchfork into the soil and pry upward. Circle the bush using the pitchfork. Once the dirt is loose take a shovel and begin to dig and lift the shrub from its hole.

Plant the smoke bush in its new location promptly. Do not allow roots to dry out in the sun and air. Place the shrub into the newly dug transplant hole and begin to firm the soil/humus mixture around the root system. Tamp the soil down firmly to remove all air pockets that might form between the shrubs roots and the soil.

Water the smoke bush thoroughly to allow the soil to settle. If the dirt sinks in around the root system add additional soil. Make sure the shrub’s base sits at the same level in the dirt as it did in its previous location. Place 3 to 4 inches of mulch around the base of the smoke tree to keep weeds at bay and also help the soil retain moisture.

Apply water weekly. The soil should be kept moist but not waterlogged. Smoke bush can withstand long periods of drought when fully established but for the first year after transplant the bush needs to have moist soil conditions to thrive. Fertilize in June following the spring transplant using a 10-10-10 fertilizer. Follow the instructions on the label for application.

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