I really knew nothing about this unusual plant until I purchased Skylands, my home on Mount Desert Island in Maine, in 1997. I hadn’t noticed branches of it in flower arrangements or examples of it in friends’ yards or gardens. One day, as I was getting my house ready for a big dinner party with the help of colleagues Kevin Sharkey and Kevin Burger, I asked Kevin Sharkey to cut flowers from the garden for his huge arrangements, and Kevin Burger to pick up some additional stems of oriental lilies at a local farm.
When Kevin B.— or Kevin II, as we called him—was on his way, he spotted a tree covered with fluffy pink panicles that looked like fairy-tale cloud puffs. It was in the front yard of a small cottage set back from the road. He knocked on the door and asked the occupant if he could cut and buy an armful of the branches. For 50 dollars he filled the back of the Ford van and proudly brought home this remarkable find. From that moment on, I have been enamored of Cotinus, or smoke bush, a relative of sumac.
The gigantic arrangement was placed in the center of the Great Hall table, and because it was so light and airy, it looked as if a pink cloud had descended into the middle of the room. It was much admired and oohed and aahed over.
I started to do some research, looking for information about this extraordinary shrub, which is also classified as a smallish tree. Since then I have located approximately a dozen different varieties, ranging from white to gray to green to pink to deep magenta, purple, and even orange.
I’ve planted a small grove of the deep-hued ‘Royal Purple’ in front of my house in Maine—it goes very well with spruce and fir, especially the yellowish Picea ‘Skylands’ that I have planted there. I have also planted many more varieties in gardens and borders at my farm in Bedford. Some grow larger and more treelike; others stay more compact and shrubby. Planted in groups, the effect is amazing, especially when the Cotinus bloom—from spring to summer, depending on where you live. The plants require full to partial sun, they grow easily and quickly, and they are very forgiving of poor soil and little food.
Cotinus grows in the temperate Northern Hemisphere—I now recall seeing several types growing at Hidcote, the famed garden in Gloucestershire, England, in the red garden, as well as in a green border. There is an American smoke tree (Cotinus obovatus), native to states including Missouri and Tennessee, which can display brighter, bolder colors than the Eurasian types, but all of them are rewarding cultivars as shrubborder plants or accent specimens in a landscape.
I love these plants so much that I am now planning a long, winding border of several types and colors for my farm. I cannot wait to show you photos of them when they’re mature and in full bloom. Maybe in 2022?