What is a Smoke Tree?

Donn Saylor

A smoke tree is a small tree or large shrub noted for its smoke-like appearance, which generally sets in just after the tree has reached full bloom. As the pink flowers of the smoke tree begin to die, they take on a wispy look that makes the branches seem immersed in billows of smoke. This tree takes on its smoky facade during the months of June, July, and August and is native to the southwest regions of North America.

Man mowing the grass
Man mowing the grass

Sometimes known as a smoke bush or by its Latin name Cotinus coggygria, the smoke tree is among the types of trees specifically planted for ornamental benefit. It is on the medium end of the size scale, generally growing 10 feet (approximately 3 meters) to 15 feet (about 4.6 meters) in height. Its spread can encompass as much as 12 feet (roughly 3.7 meters) around. Because of its manageable size and unique beauty, smoke trees are a popular choice for borders and gardens.

The leaves of the smoke tree are just as distinctive as the flowers. The leaves are oval-shaped and can grow up to 4 inches (about 10.2 cm) in length. In the early spring months, the leaves take on a turquoise hue before turning deep purple—nearly black—during the summer. By fall, the leaves become fiery shades of orange, yellow, purple, and red, and can stay on the branches long after other trees have lost their foliage. The leaves have bold red veins and are trimmed in scarlet tones.

A smoke tree's flowers grow in bunches. They are situated on the stem in large clusters that have been known to grow more than 12 inches (roughly 30.5 cm) in length. After reaching full blossom, the flowers begin to fade, lending the tree its descriptive moniker.

Proper care is essential for garden trees to maintain their luster and shape. The smoke tree enjoys full sunlight, moist soil, and requires composting in the fall. If the tree is being utilized as a large shrub, it should be pruned once in the spring by trimming the stems to approximately three buds from the base. If it is being grown as a tree, stems growing haphazardly should be removed in late winter or early spring to ensure the strength and sturdiness of the frame.

The smoke tree is not commonly susceptible to diseases or pests. The most reported problems are Verticillium fungi and powder-like mold. The mold is usually found during the summer months when the leaves have taken on a royal purple coloring.

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