Smokebush puts some spark into winter
THE smokebush gets its name from its ability to make large flowering plumes that look like a puff of smoke over the foliage. Some bushes can have so many flower heads that the whole bush looks like a large billow of smoke from a bonfire. But some do not smoke at all, or very little.
The flower plumes have the tiny true flowers tucked up safely in the puff of smoky filaments. These flowers sometimes set seeds that hang on after the delicate filaments have been worn away. Some kinds of smoke bush have fawn-coloured flowers and some are more deep pink-purple.
The smoke bush is also called sumach -- it is related to the stag's horn sumach. But the two plants look very different and have been separated, each being given its own name and the botanical name of the smokebush is cotinus.
The main kind is Cotinus coggygria, which is native to southern Europe and eastwards to China. It is a hardy plant and mostly seen in gardens in the purple-leaved forms, which have been selected by nurserymen.
'Notcutt's Variety' was once the main type, with red-wine leaves and pinkish flowers. Its place has been taken by 'Royal Purple', which is a much darker colour -- but some people like the older, less-dark variety which has more flowers. The leaves of both of these purple kinds turn to bright scarlet in autumn, and the variety 'Grace' is even more spectacular in autumn with a lovely clear red, especially if seen against the light.
There are normal green-leaved kinds, too, although these are not as much seen, which is a pity. The most beautiful of these is 'Flame', which has the most brilliant autumn colour in shades of orange and red. While the other forms mentioned are large bushes, this is more of a small tree.
Though smaller, the purple forms also can get too large for a small garden and may need to be cut back. This can be done in late winter or early spring, cutting back the longer, more straggly shoots to about half their length to keep the bush neat and tidy.
But even harder pruning can be carried out, cutting the whole bush to the ground to encourage the production of strong young shoots of deep purple. These can look great in the midst of perennial flowers in summer, suiting practically every colour, especially hot colours such as red, orange and purple, and using dark blue for a contrast.
When cut hard like this, the smoky plumes will not be produced.
All kinds of smokebush like a really sunny spot on well-drained soil, not too rich. The best colour in autumn comes after a warm, sunny summer and the show is good until the last leaves fall.