In old gardening books you will find cotinus referred to as Rhus cotinus; in fact the species Cotinus coggygria is sometimes called Venetian sumac, endorsing its association with the genus. Now separated from rhus, cotinus stands alone as the genus of a handful of species, the cultivars of which include some of our finest foliage shrubs.
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To most gardeners, cotinus is synonymous with purple foliage, the plum-leaved forms being the most widely planted. The green-leaved smoke bush options are equally impressive, however, their soft leaves contrasting in colour and texture with evergreens and plants with typically formed foliage. Many of these excel when it comes to autumn colour.
They are large, hardy, summer-flowering, deciduous shrubs with attractive, rounded green, purple or gold leaves and feathery flower plumes. Its common name of smoke bush or smoke tree is inspired by the wispy character of its flowers. There are three species from Europe and Asia, southeast USA and southwest China and the smaller cultivars grow to 1.2m in height and spread, while larger ones can reach 4-8m in height and spread. See below for the best cotinus to grow.
Season the abundant summer foliage often colours brilliantly in autumn. The fine, feathery, flower plumes remain attractive for many weeks from midsummer through to autumn.
Conditions Full sun or partial shade on any well-drained soil. Reasonably tolerant of exposed sites.
Hardiness Most are hardy throughout the UK even in cold winters and have an RHS hardiness rating of H5 (hardy to -15ºC). They’re suitable for gardens in USDA zones 4a-8b.
Cotinus coggygria ‘Royal Purple’
This cotinus is a large, bushy shrub with abundant, rounded, deep-purple leaves turning rich red in autumn. The flower plumes are purple-pink, tipped with creamy yellow at their peak. A superb background shrub. AGM. 5m x 5m. RHS H5, USDA 4a-8b.
Cotinus coggygria ‘Notcutt’s Variety’
A smoke bush with upright and bushy in habit with oval, red-purple leaves that turn red and orange in autumn. Feathery, pale-pink flower panicles are freely produced in summer. Raised at Notcutts Nurseries, Suffolk, in 1915. 5m x 5m.
Cotinus coggygria ‘Kanari’
An unusual cotinus with fresh lemon-yellow leaves, becoming pale green as they age. The foliage turns purple in autumn. The magnificent flower plumes are creamy-white, becoming beige, quite unlike any of the other smoke bush cultivars. 3m x 3m.
Cotinus Dusky Maiden (= ‘Londus’)
Bushy in habit, with small, deep-burgundy, wavy-edged leaves that turn rich red in autumn. Bred by Peter Moore at Longstock Park, Hampshire, in 1997, this is perhaps the finest of the smaller, purple-leaved forms of cotinus. 3m x 1.5m.
Cotinus coggygria ‘Pink Champagne’
A smaller smoke bush with bronze-tinted new leaves that soon turn pale green. The pink flower plumes of this cotinus are abundant in summer and are followed by scarlet autumn foliage tints. Useful to lighten heavy, dark foliage. 3m x 2m.
A fast-growing cotinus, upright when young and spreading with age. The rounded leaves are copper-purple, brown by midsummer, then rich red in autumn. The deep-pink flowers are large, feathery and beaded. Prune hard for upright stems and large leaves. 5m. RHS H5†.
Cotinus coggygria Green Fountain (= ‘Kolcot’)
Raised in the Netherlands in 1998, this is a neat and compact cotinus cultivar with a free branching habit and deep-green leaves that turn orange-red in autumn. It produces prolific, smoky grey-green inflorescences in summer. 3m x 3m. USDA 4a-8b.
Cotinus coggygria Golden Spirit (= ‘Ancot’)
A fairly compact smoke bush shrub with whorls of round, bright-yellow leaves, turning lime-yellow and then apricot-salmon before they fall. Small, soft-green, fluffy flower plumes freely produced in some years, turn copper. AGM. 4m x 4m. RHS H5, USDA 5a-8b.
Cotinus are very hardy, and tolerant of cold winters and some exposure to wind. They are easy to grow, thriving on most soils that are not too dry. Reasonably moist, fertile ground results in vigorous plants and good foliage, although more intense leaf colour often occurs in drier conditions. Smoke bushes thrive on clay and are a good choice for new-build gardens where space allows.
Cotinus will grow in partial shade, but foliage colour is always at its best in an open, sunny position, especially when it comes to the purple-leaved forms. In shade, these take on brown tints, while the golden-leaved forms turn lime-green. Too much shade results in few flowers and often more leggy growth. Plant out container-grown shrubs during cooler, wetter months. Prepare the ground thoroughly, incorporating plenty of garden compost or a shrub- and tree-planting medium. As cotinus can be slow to get going, it may be worth investing in a larger specimen than standard garden centre stock.
Where to see and buy cotinus
• Ashwood Nurseries: Ashwood Lower Lane, Ashwood, Kingswinford, West Midlands DY6 0AE. Tel 01384 401996, ashwoodnurseries.com
• Barcham Trees: Eye Hill Drove, Soham, Ely, Cambridgeshire CB7 5XF. Tel 01353 720950, barcham.co.uk
• The Bath Priory, Weston Road, Bath BA1 2XT. Tel 01225 331922, thebathpriory.co.uk
• Sir Harold Hillier Gardens, Jermyns Lane, Ampfield, Hampshire SO51 0QA. Tel 01794 369318, hants.gov.uk/thingstodo/hilliergardens
• Larch Cottage Nurseries, Melkinthorpe, Penrith, Cumbria CA10 2DR. Tel 01931 712404, larchcottage.co.uk
• Thorp Perrow Arboretum, Bedale, North Yorkshire DL8 2PS. Tel 01677 425323, thorpperrow.com
• RHS Wisley Plant Centre RHS Garden, Wisley, Woking, Surrey GU23 6QB.Tel 01483 211113, rhs.org.uk/wisleyplantcentre