Growing And Planting Smoke Trees In The Landscape

Have you ever seen a smoke tree (European, Cotinus coggygria/American, Cotinus obovatus)? Growing smoke trees is something people do to make great looking shrub borders or even just as a pretty patio or accent tree in a front yard garden. When in full bloom, they have gorgeous reddish brown or dark mauve feathery flowers that make the tree look like a puff of smoke.

Planting smoke trees is easy enough. These trees make a great landscaping addition to most front yards. A lot of people prefer to use them as accent trees similar to the Japanese maple. When the smoke tree blooms, it makes a great accent.

Planting smoke trees throughout the border of your yard is another excellent idea for a pretty border that separates your yard from your neighbor’s that both you and your neighbor will enjoy.

Tips for Growing Smoke Trees

If you are planting smoke trees in your yard, you will want to know how to grow a smoke tree. This is simple enough. Purchase a good tree from your local garden center. They grow well in a high pH soil and should be located where they can get full sun or partial shade; however, they do prefer full sun and will bloom at their best in full sun.

When the smoke tree blooms, it is a beautiful tree. The puff of smoke that is the flowers will last most of the summer before it starts to fall off and fade for fall foliage. Again, the smoke tree blooms are like feathery, fuzzy flowers and look like a beautiful cloud of smoke.

Growing smoke trees is easy but you should be careful not to damage the bark. The bark is thin and easily damaged. Therefore, be careful not to hit it with a lawnmower or other gardening equipment while gardening. Weed whackers can also do harm, so again, use caution.

Pruning a Smoke Tree

The plant will also droop as it gets larger, so pruning your growing smoke trees is very important. Wait until late fall or early spring to do so after the tree is done blooming. You don’t want to stop the tree from blooming as the smoke tree blooms are the best part of the tree.

Pruning your smoke tree will make sure it grows up strong. Further, keeping the soil alkaline should help your tree be healthy as well. You can get food for the tree or treatments for the soil if you feel you need them from your local garden center.

Royal Purple Smoke Tree

Purple-Red Foliage and Wispy Florals

Why Royal Purple Smoke Trees?

Versatility plus gorgeous purplish-red foliage sets the Royal Purple Smoke Tree apart. And with incredible smoke-like purple blooms, as well as tolerance of most soil types and drought conditions, the Royal Purple offers beauty and strength.

It’s a show of color that begins in spring and lasts all summer long. The oval-shaped foliage then transitions to a striking scarlet in the fall. A slow grower that features an open crown, the Royal Purple Smoke will eventually top out at 15 feet, making it suitable for a number of planting options throughout the landscape or garden.

Why is Better

Whether you prefer to plant it as a shrub or let it grow into a colorful specimen tree, the Royal Purple Smoke combines beauty, ease of care and versatility.

But the best part? We’ve planted, grown and shipped our Royal Purple Smoke Trees with care. So, not only do you get a unique pick for your garden, but you also get the guarantee of a healthier, more developed root system and a head start on growth, shipped right to your door.

Don’t wait – see the beauty of this one-of-a-kind tree for yourself. Get your own Purple Smoke Tree today!

Planting & Care

1. Planting: Choose a location where your tree will receive full sunlight (at least 6 hours a day). It can tolerate some shade, but does best when getting full sunlight. It’s able to grow in a wide range of soils, but be sure the soil is well-draining/

Dig a hole for your tree that is at least three times as wide as the root ball and equal in depth. Remove your tree from the container and gently loosen the roots by hand to ensure they grow in a spreading manner. Place your tree in the hole and position it so that the top of the roots are even with the ground and the tree is standing upright. Once the hole is completely filled, give your tree a deep watering to remove any air pockets and settle the soil. Apply 2 to 3 inches of mulch around the tree, ensuring that it doesn’t touch the trunk.

2. Watering: Ensure the soil around your tree stays moist but not wet during the first few months while establishing. Test the soil by feeling down 2 to 3 inches to determine if it’s dry and needs additional water. These trees are fairly drought resistant once established and will only need water every 1 to 2 weeks, depending on your climate.

3. Fertilizing: Fertilizing is not recommended – the Royal Purple Smoke Tree grows well on its own.

4. Pruning: Little to no maintenance is required when growing it as a shrub. Any dead or diseased branches can be pruned in early spring before growth appears. They can be pruned to grow as a tree form, but this should be done when planting. To do this, select a main stem and prune the other branches away, keeping more growth at the top.

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Buying and Growing Smoke Trees and Smoke Bushes

The other day a visitor to the garden asked me how I grew smoke bush. There are two species of Cotinus and both grow in my garden.The American Smoke Tree, C. obovatus, is a rare native ofTennessee, Alabama, Kentucky and Texas where it can grow up to 10 metres tall by near as much across. Fifteen years ago I planted a small copse of this species. The plants were watered a little for a year or two after planting but haven’t been watered since. Despite this neglect from the hose they have flourished, growing well even during the drought years. I didn’t train them to a single trunk so they are more shrub-like in shape, the best being six metres tall by 5 metres across. During summer the egg shaped leaves have a bluish cast and contrast nicely with the pinkish flower panicles. During May these trees put on an amazing autumn show as their leaves turn brilliant scarlet, pink and orange. It’s as rare in cultivation as it is in the wild. When I was looking for trees to plant I bought every single one that was available in Australia at the time, a grand total of ten. Propagation from cuttings is difficult so seed is the usual option but germination is at best spasmodic and at worst fails completely.

The European species, C. coggygria, is much more likely to be found in Australian gardens and there are now half a dozen varieties available, all worth having. I pollard an old purple leafed selection, which could be ‘Foliis Purpureus’ or ‘Notcutt’s Variety’, I’m not sure which and the names seem interchangeable in Australia. Every winter I cut this shrub down to ninety centimetres. Whilst this means I don’t get any flowers the strong vertical new growth often reaches two metres in a season. These stems grow strongly well into autumn and still produce fresh, glossy new leaves right into April.

In the late 1970s Peter Dummer, then a propagator at the famous Hillier’s Nursery in the UK, raised five seedlings from a deliberate cross he had made between C. obovatus and C. coggygria ‘Velvet Cloak’. He named one of the seedlings ‘Grace’ after his wife. My plant of ‘Grace’ has been in for a dozen years or so. It was a brute to begin with sending out long floppy wands which made it more gormless than graceful. I nearly dug it out several times. It took a lot of work over many years to train it into something resembling a tree but now it is one of the wonders of the garden. The plum coloured flower panicles are huge and the pink veined, deep plum leaves are large and handsome. ‘Grace’ is now 6 or 7 metres tall and still throws out long floppy branches but these now give the tree an air of elegance. The autumn leaves are stunning turning red, scarlet, pink and butter.

At the other end of the scale from the tree like ‘Grace’ is Cotinus coggygria ‘Young Lady’ which has been growing for a few years in our New Mediterranean Garden. Naturally a dwarf shrub it has flower panicles at the tip of every growth and even the current seasons new wood. Whilst this makes it difficult to find good cutting material it makes it one of the joys. From all accounts it will grow up to 2 metres tall by a little less across although ours is still only 130cm tall. The flower panicles are green at first but soon turn dusky pink. All Cotinus are drought tolerant and frost hardy and to my knowledge have no known problems although they need protection from rabbits and hares when they are young.

View a short video on the smoke trees here

Plant Database

Bransford, W.D. and Dolphia

Cotinus obovatus

American Smoke Tree, Texas Smoke Tree, Wild Smoke Tree, Smoke Tree, Smokebush, Chittamwood

Synonym(s): Cotinus americanus

USDA Native Status: L48 (N)

American smoketree is an upright, small tree or multi-trunked shrub, growing 15-30 ft. tall. Has a short trunk, open crown of spreading branches, resinous sap with a strong odor, and deep orange-yellow heartwood. Six to ten inch flower panicles develop long, red or purple, hairlike petioles that, in the crowded flower clusters, create a smoky appearance. (The flower itself is small and not showy.) Berries occur infrequently on pinkish stems; these also have a smoke-like look. Spring leaves are silky pink, becoming bluish to dark green. Fall leaves are magnificently colorful. A gnarled limb structure and the dark, flaking bark are other attributes. The masses of smoke-like fruit clusters with hairy stalks of sterile flowers give the species its common name.

Native to rocky, usually mountain soils from Kentucky, Tennessee, and northern Alabama west to Oklahoma, with disjunct populations in a few counties of central Texas, Cotinus obovatus is an outstanding small, ornamental tree. Its bark is decorative, its leaves are soothing blue-green in spring and summer and flaming oranges and reds in fall, and its flowers form ethereal clouds of pink and purple in spring. The floral panicles wave in the breeze, giving the illusion of clouds of smoke. It is drought-tolerant, disease-resistant, well-adapted to the stony soils of its native habitat, and should not be over-watered or over-fertilized.

From the Image Gallery

Plant Characteristics

Duration: Perennial
Habit: Tree
Leaf Retention: Deciduous
Leaf Arrangement: Alternate
Leaf Complexity: Simple
Leaf Shape: Elliptic , Obovate , Ovate
Leaf Venation: Pinnate
Leaf Pubescence: Glabrous , Puberulent
Leaf Margin: Entire
Leaf Apex: Obtuse
Leaf Base: Cuneate , Rounded
Breeding System: Flowers Unisexual , Monoecious
Inflorescence: Panicle
Size Notes: 15-30 ft, normally no more than 15 ft
Leaf: Blue-green above, pale below.
Flower: Flowers in 12-inch panicles
Fruit: Purple to brown, 1/8 inch long.
Size Class: 12-36 ft.

Bloom Information

Bloom Color: Pink , Yellow , Purple
Bloom Time: Apr , May
Bloom Notes: Flowers change from yellow to pink or purple as they age.


USA: AL , AR , GA , KY , MO , OK , TN , TX
Native Distribution: Ozark Mts. of AR & adjacent MO & OK; also KY & TN, s. to AL & GA; Edwards Plateau of TX
Native Habitat: Hillsides; limestone outcrops; rocky woods

Growing Conditions

Water Use: Low
Light Requirement: Sun , Part Shade
Soil Moisture: Dry
Soil pH: Alkaline (pH>7.2)
Drought Tolerance: High
Cold Tolerant: yes
Heat Tolerant: yes
Soil Description: Rocky, well-drained, limestone soils, whether sand, loam, or clay.
Conditions Comments: Once it is established within its range, it thrives on tough conditions and neglect and should not be over-watered. Rich soil and too much water may create a weak plant. It likes rocky north- or east-facing slopes, or plant on protected side of Ashe Juniper (Juniperus ashei).


Use Ornamental: A small tree valued for its trunk and branches, cloud-like spring blooms, and standout fall foliage.
Use Wildlife: Browsed by wildlife.
Use Other: The wood was once used for making a yellow dye and for fence posts and tool handles
Conspicuous Flowers: yes
Interesting Foliage: yes
Deer Resistant: Moderate


Propagation Material: Root Cuttings , Seeds , Semi-hardwood Cuttings , Softwood Cuttings
Description: Few seeds are formed. Those sown immediately after collection may take two springs to germinate. Scarification and stratification hasten germination. Smoke-trees are also propagated from root or stem cuttings or layering. Semi-hardwood or softwood cuttings should be taken in late spring after flowering.
Seed Collection: To collect seeds before wind dispersion, clip the entire fruiting panicle from the tree in late April. Collect enough to compensate for a high percentage of infertile seed. Air-dry before storing or planting. When dried, fuzzy panicle are easily detached.
Seed Treatment: Scarification in a 20-40 minute concentrated sulfuric acid treatment or with warm, moist stratification for 150 days. Follow with 60-80 days of stratification at 38-41 degrees.
Commercially Avail: yes
Maintenance: Do not over-water once its established.

Mr. Smarty Plants says

Native alternative for Japanese Red Maple in Oklahoma
October 12, 2009
Mr. Smarty Plants, I am looking for a native alternative to a Japanese Red Maple. I would like a small tree that I can put in my front garden that will not pose a security risk my being overgrown and …
view the full question and answer

From the National Organizations Directory

According to the species list provided by Affiliate Organizations, this plant is on display at the following locations:
Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center – Austin, TX
Texas Discovery Gardens – Dallas, TX
NPSOT – Native Plant Society of Texas – Fredericksburg, TX
NPSOT – Austin Chapter – Austin, TX
NPSOT – Williamson County Chapter – Georgetown, TX
Mt. Cuba Center – Hockessin, DE


Bibref 298 – Field Guide to Texas Trees (1999) Simpson, B.J.
Bibref 481 – How to Grow Native Plants of Texas and the Southwest: Revised and Updated Edition (2001) Nokes, J.
Bibref 841 – Native Alternatives to Invasive Plants (2006) Burrell, C. C.
Bibref 318 – Native Texas Plants: Landscaping Region by Region (2002) Wasowski, S. & A. Wasowski
Bibref 297 – Trees of Central Texas (1984) Vines, Robert A.
Bibref 286 – Wildflowers of the Texas Hill Country (1989) Enquist, M.
Search More Titles in Bibliography

Additional resources

USDA: Find Cotinus obovatus in USDA Plants
FNA: Find Cotinus obovatus in the Flora of North America (if available)
Google: Search Google for Cotinus obovatus


Record Modified: 2015-11-12
Research By: NPC, GDG

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