Cotinus: smoke bush shrubs to grow for autumn colour
Bold autumn tints and early plumes of flower make the cotinus, or smoke bush, an indispensable shrub in the garden. Shrub expert Andy McIndoe advises on how to grow them. Photographs by Richard Bloom
Cotinus are large, hardy, summer-flowering, deciduous shrubs with attractive, rounded green, purple or gold leaves and feathery flower plumes. The common name of smoke bush or smoke tree is inspired by the wispy character of its flowers. Most cotinus have excellent autumn colour.
Here's how to grow cotinus
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.
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.
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.
How to grow cotinus
Where to grow cotinus
Cotinus are very hardy, 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.
When to plant cotinus
Plant out container-grown cotinus during the cooler, wetter months. Prepare the ground thoroughly, incorporating plenty of garden compost or a shrub- and tree-planting compost. As cotinus can be slow to get going, it may be worth investing in a larger specimen than standard garden centre stock.
When to prune cotinus
Prune cotinus back hard in late winter or early spring. This will ensure an abundance of leaves and will keep the plant at a manageable size.
Best smoke bush trees for autumn colour
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 ‘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 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 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 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.
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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.
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 ‘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.
Where to see and buy cotinus
- Ashwood Nurseries, Ashwood Lower Lane, Ashwood, Kingswinford, West Midlands DY6 0AE
- Barcham Trees, Eye Hill Drove, Soham, Ely, Cambridgeshire CB7 5XF
- The Bath Priory, Weston Road, Bath BA1 2XT
- Sir Harold Hillier Gardens, Jermyns Lane, Ampfield, Hampshire SO51 0QA
- Larch Cottage Nurseries, Melkinthorpe, Penrith, Cumbria CA10 2DR
- Thorp Perrow Arboretum, Bedale, North Yorkshire DL8 2PS
- RHS Wisley Plant Centre, RHS Garden, Wisley, Woking, Surrey GU23 6QB