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The Unusual Smoketree

Sometimes plants become popular because they are simply
different. With the more unusual colored foliages, a little goes a long way.

For beautiful red, maroon, or purple foliage, you may
be familiar with the smoketree, or what is sometimes called the smokebush. There
are two varieties commonly available today, common smoketree (or smokebush), Cotinus
coggygria, and American smoketree, Cotinus obovatus. While the two are certainly
similar they are not interchangeable and require different spaces in the garden
to look their best.

Smoketree cultivars

Cultivars of the common smoketree are the most
well-known by gardeners and can easily be found in the nurseries. The unusual
flower and leaf colors make it both beautiful and intriguing. I think it is
most attractive when used as a small grouping. Used singly this shrubby plant
gets lost and looks a little out of place.

The simple oval leaves of the common species are
bluish-green, while the leaves of the widely available cultivar Velvet Cloak
are dark purple with a fall color that is reddish-purple. Royal Purple leaves
are a deep maroon, almost black, with a fall color that is reddish-purple. Their
unusual leaf color can certainly turn heads but they have an even more unusual
flower show.

Each individual flower is yellow and only 1/8-inch
in diameter. It is the hairs that come from the flower stalk on the 6- to 8-inch-long
panicles that provide the real show. These hairs have colors similar to those
of the foliage and can go through several color changes as the flower panicle
ages. The abundance and softness of these hairs give the smoketree its name,
and they do look like pillows of smoke. Flowering season is late July and August
in our area.

Growing habits

While the common smoketree is more of a shrubby
plant growing 10 to 15 feet tall and equally wide, the American smoketree is
a little more upright, with a tree form growing 20 to 25 feet tall. The leaves
are more rounded than on common smoketree, and are a wonderful dark bluish-green
with a consistent and spectacular fall color of yellow, orange, and red. Plant
propagators have been working on selecting cultivars of the American smoketree
that will exhibit a single specific fall color. I look forward to the opportunity
to use such a great plant and choose one with the fall color that is the most
suitable for my design.

The American smoketree can be used as a single specimen,
accent plant, or focal point in the garden; while it lacks the royal-colored
foliage that many common smoketree cultivars have, it is equally beautiful with
or without flowers in any garden. Full sun is preferred but I have seen smoketree
growing in partial shade quite successfully. This plant is adaptable to even
the toughest site but, as with any newly planted tree or shrub, they need extra
care and watering until they become fully established.

As I look at my garden now I can see that it is different
and I like it that way. Each year I see plants that were once considered unusual
or different becoming widely available to all gardeners throughout Kentucky.
How exciting this is. As gardeners we can never stop asking our garden centers
and nurseries to find new plants and carry more variety each year.

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