At this time of the year I really become aware to the color of foliage in various plant in the landscape. Plants are still fairly fresh and their foliage is alive and vibrant with color. Colors other than greens stand out in ways that often fade as the season goes on. It is unusual to find a group of plants with more color than those of the Cotinus (Smoke Bush) family which gives a show from spring until late autumn.Their color ranges from black purples, wine reds, bluish green, green and into chartreuse yellow – and this does not include autumn tones which are just as show stopping!
The genus Cotinus is a member of the family Anancardiaceae which also contains the Mango, Cashew, Poison Ivy (Sumac) species and was at first classified as Sumac(Rhus) species until it was separated from the other members. It does not irritate the skin or have sap which can burn.
Cotinus is a small genus of 2 or possibly 4 species of which coggygria and obovatus are the best known. Cotinus coggygria is the species which is best known in the landscape and originates in Europe from France into Eurasia and possibly all the way into China. The far eastern representative coggygria sometimes listed as another species C. szechuanensis (var. szechuanensis). The other well known species is C. obovatus and comes from North America particularly in Tennessee, north Alabama, Missouri, Arkansas and isolated pockets in central Texas. All Cotinus species have been used extensively for a source of dye wood as it gives colors of orange-yellow and yellow coloring. The use of C. obovatus as a yellow dye source before the civil war in U.S.A. almost brought the species to extinction in its native habitats.
Cotinus is from ‘Greek’ kotinos meaning wild olive but why it is named this is unknown. Coggygria also comes from ‘Greek’ kokkugia- the name of ‘Smoke Tree’. C.Coggygria has been cultivated in gardens for an unknown period but is first mentioned in the mid 17th century. The species form is not commonly seen in gardens as there are more exciting color forms.
Smoke Bush are well known for their colorful foliage and there are an increasing number of cultivars to choose from. The oldest color form is probably C.c. ‘Foliis Purpureis'(Rubrifolius) which has rich purple -plum leaves which fade into to greenish tones as the summer progresses. C.c. f. purpureus(‘Atropurpureus’) refers to the coloring of the large panicles of purplish flowers. C.c. ‘Royal Purple’ (Notcutt’s Variety’) has leaves which start maroon red and then matures to black-purple(darkest of all forms) it holds its color well throughout the year and changes into scarlet autumn shades. C.c. ‘Velvet Cloak’ has red violet foliage which is dramatic, its floral display is longer than most. It holds is color well. Cotinus ‘Grace’ leaves emerge in wine-red and has clouds of pink-tinged flowers. A new color yellow range has come out from a chance seedling found at a dutch nursery in 1990, it is C.c. ‘Golden Spirit'(Ancot’) – it does not fade out unless it is under-watered.
All Cotinus species drier areas often with rocky soil on slopes and hillsides. They have proven to be vary adaptable to many other situations and soils from heavy clay to sandy. They need full sun pr produce the best coloring and floral display. They need adequate watering while becoming established but later are much more drought resistant. They are pest and disease free but sometimes coloring tends to fade out in hotter southern areas, this is where coppicing helps rejuvenate the color. The best coloring is obtained by regularly pruning them hard, use a method such as coppicing to produce wanted effect.
All Smoke Bush are rated at zones 5to 9 and take cold temperatures down to -28 c. (-20 f.) In colder climates they generally are cut to the ground which is like the mentioned coppicing. Cotinus can be used as specimens, in shrub borders, as accents, masses, in less watered areas and can pruned into tree forms which are very effective. Cotinus have a lot of appeal in the shape of the leaves and wispy flowers to add to a garden along with strong color.
Cotinus in all its Glory:
Cotinus species : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cotinus
Cotinus obovatus, a web site devoted to it: http://cotinus.net/
Google image page of Cotinus coggygria cultivars, choose your color: