When designing a backyard, we are encouraged to think of the foliage first. A powerful backbone of intriguing leaves in the garden will maintain a style together, even if flowering plants aren’t at their peak. However, we can quickly locate ourselves at a foliage frenzy, choosing exciting leaves in every color from purple and chocolate to lime and rich golden, with stains and splatters or stripes and streaks. Colorful though it could be, it may also be a bit much.
Old Fashioned smoke bush may be part of the answer to such color overload. Its presence in the backyard provides the eye with a place to rest; it makes a soothing balance together with the vibrant flowers and leaves of its neighbors. Despite its title, Old Fashioned smoke bush is not an heirloom cultivar, however, has been introduced into the marketplace in 2006. It has become one of my favorites.
Botanical name: Cotinus coggygria ‘Old Fashioned’
Common title: Old Fashioned smoke bush
USDA zones: 5 to 10 (find your zone)
Water requirement: Typical
Light requirement: Full sun or partial shade
Mature size: 6 feet tall and 5 feet wide
Advantages and tolerances: Cut flowers; drought tolerant when established; stated to be deer resistant (though my deer have not got the memo)
Seasonal curiosity: Spring, summer and fall
When to plant: Spring or fall
Caution: Smoke bushes are thought to be invasive in some parts of the nation, while this is not a problem where I live, in the Seattle region. Check with your local cooperative extension office for advice.
Distinguishing traits. The gentle oval leaves open purple before committing into a cool blue-green, contrasting beautifully with the ruby-red stalks and veins.
Prolific yellow-green blossoms decorate the tree in spring, while in fall the bush ignites with fiery shades of crimson, orange and pink.
The best way to utilize it. The foliage has a luminous quality when backlit by the sun, because you can see in this photograph, so plant it where it is possible to appreciate this.
Although typically purchased for use in the landscape, Old Fashioned smoke bush also produces a striking specimen in a container.
The unique color may be the beginning point for a gentle monochromatic strategy; pair it with Tasmanian Tiger spurge (Euphorbia characias ‘Tasmanian Tiger’) along with Quicksilver hebe (Hebe pimeleoides). The rich purple foliage of fringe flower (Loropetalum chinense) would be beautiful to get a gentle comparison, drawing attention to the dark red veins and stalks from Old Fashioned.
If you prefer bolder colors, plant this smoke bush adjacent to a gold locust tree (Robinia pseudoacacia ‘Frisia’), whose chartreuse leaves turn a bright yellow in fall. A skirt of glowing orange daylilies (Hemerocallis),like ‘Flasher’, would provide an early burst of color, also, and would really stick out against the cool tones of this smoke bush.
Planting notes. All smoke bushes prefer reasonably fertile, moisture-retentive yet well-drained soil. They benefit from an application of balanced fertilizer in spring, although I typically simply put in a mulch of good-quality compost.
To secure bigger leaves (though this will forfeit the flowers), older smoke bushes can be coppiced in spring. When buds start to break, cut the stalks of this smoke bush back to only 2 feet tall. From the end of the summer the tree will have rapidly grown again to 4 feet tall and broad, however, the foliage will be even more magnificent than normal. Don’t coppice very young plants, however. I usually wait until at least their third year at the floor.