Fall Color Series: Cotinus coggygria
Fall is upon us and that is becoming more and more evident as we step outside and see a transformation of color within the landscape. As leaves lose their green coloring, shades of yellow, gold, and red become more prominent, creating a fiery fall show before dropping completely in winter. There are thousands of species that exhibit this type of change, and in this multi-part series, we will showcase a handful to you!
Before we dive into our first species, let’s clarify what happens within the leaves themselves to create this dynamic shift… Biology 101 here we come! Leaves possess their green coloring because of the presence of a pigment called chlorophyll. Chlorophyll is necessary for plants to be able to create energy from sunlight, and during spring and summer months when sunlight is abundant, plants can produce a lot of this pigment. In fall when temperatures begin to drop, plants stop making chlorophyll. Instead, they begin to break down the pigment into smaller molecules, and as this occurs other pigments that are present begin to show. This is why leaves turn yellow or red in the fall!
Now for our first spotlight species: Cotinus coggygria.
Commonly called Smoketree, Cotinus coggygria’s botanical name has purely Greek origins. The genus name coming from the word kotinos, meaning wild olive; and the specific epithet coggygria, coming from the Greek word kokkugia. The colloquial name Smoketree, is derived from the billowy spent flower clusters that create a hazy, smoky aura around the tree or shrub’s crown.
-Photo: Cotinus coggygria flowers (Anneli Salo [CC BY-SA 3.0])
Native to southern Europe and parts of Asia, Cotinus coggygria has historically been cultivated for dye manufacturing. The natural dye that is derived from the wood is called “young fustic,” and it yields a range of colors from strong mustard yellows to peaches and cream. This dye was most extensively used from about 1600 – 1950, because it can produce strong colors at a low cost. Can you think of why it was used so heavily during this time period? During WWI, it was one of the main dyes used to manufacture khaki for army uniforms – how fascinating!
-Pictures, left to right: fustic wood chips, yarn dyed with fustic-
In the landscape, Cotinus is found as a slow growing, upright, and loosely spreading small tree or shrub – dependent on how it’s been trained. We offer standard and multi-branched (bush/shrub) forms, in sizes that range from 1-gallon pot to a 24-gallon tree box. They generally mature to about 12 – 15 feet high and wide, however some specimens have been observed to reach 25 feet tall. There are a range of different cultivars with varying leaf coloration. The most commonly seen are the purple or red-leafed varieties like ‘Royal Purple,’ but the straight species presents bluish-green leaves; all Cotinus take on wonderful fall color!
We carry several Cotinus cultivars, including let’s dive a little deeper into the unique attributes of a few – ‘Royal Purple,’ ‘Old Fashioned,’ and ‘Golden Spirit’ in particular.
Cotinus coggygria ‘Royal Purple’
-Pictures, top to bottom: Cotinus ‘Royal Purple’ foliage, Cotinus ‘Royal Purple’ fall color-
‘Royal Purple’ has the most characteristic purple foliage of our Cotinus collection. Through most of summer, the leaves of ‘Royal Purple’ maintain their dramatic coloration then shift to shades of scarlet red with the arrival of fall. Moderate growing, they will eventually grow to reach 12 – 15 feet tall and wide. The “smoke puff” flower clusters of ‘Royal Purple’ have a richer purple coloring than the species. This cultivar is choice for a sunny spot in the garden, where the leaves are illuminated like stained glass in the sunlight. We offer multi-branched bush forms in 1 – 15g and 24g and standard tree forms in sizes
ranging from 5 – 24g.
Cotinus coggygria ‘Old Fashioned’
-Pictures, left to right: Cotinus coggygria ‘Old Fashioned,’ ‘Old Fashioned’ fall coloring
Often grown for its curious foliage, ‘Old Fashioned’ makes a spectacular addition to the garden. The leaves of ‘Old Fashioned’ emerge in shades of rosy red and purple, maturing to a cool blue green. During fall, the foliage takes on shades of antique pink and rosy red. In the landscape, ‘Old Fashioned’ reaches about 8 feet tall and wide, almost half the size of ‘Royal Purple.’ This Cotinus thrives in bright sunlight, which also showcases its foliage. We offer this variety in multi-branched bush forms in sizes from 5 – 15g, and standard tree forms in 15 – 24g.
Cotinus coggygria ‘Golden Spirit’
-Pictures, top to bottom: Cotinus ‘Golden Spirit,’ ‘Golden Spirit’ fall color-
‘Golden Spirit’ is the smallest and most boldly colored of the three cultivars highlighted here, maturing to about 7 – 10 feet high and wide. Lime green in the spring and golden yellow in summer, fall color presents itself in shades of bronze and rosy red. Wonderfully suited for use as a landscape focal point, ‘Golden Spirit’ adds interesting contrast and depth to mixed beds against evergreens and perennials. We carry multi-branched forms in 1 – 24g pots.
Cotinus make a wonderful addition to a water-wise garden; these plants require very little watering once established (see our Drought Devils collection!). They are very tolerant of poor soil conditions, in fact they often look their best under stress or in poor conditions. Often they are found to be more short-lived in rich soils. At home in any sunny spot in the garden, plant Cotinus as a single accent specimen, or in mass to create a dramatic foliage effect. They also may be used to build an informal hedge, or..… smokescreen!
Companion plants for Cotinus: Physocarpus (Ninebark), Coreopsis (Tickseed), Panicum virgatum (Switch Grass), Rudbeckia (Black-Eyed Susan), Potentilla (Potentilla).
“Cotinus coggygria.” Missouri Botanical Garden. http://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/PlantFinder/PlantFinderDetails.aspx?kempercode=c390.
Harlow, Nora. “Plants and Landscapes for Summer-Dry Landscapes.” 108-09, 279-81. Oakland, CA: East Bay Municipal Utility District, 2004.
“Dyeing with Fustic.” Wild Colours. http://www.wildcolours.co.uk/html/fustic.html.
Simpson, Richard K. “Why do leaves change color in the fall season?.” Ask a Biologist. https://askabiologist.asu.edu/questions/why-do-leaves-change-color.
“The New Sunset Western Garden Book.” edited by Kathleen Norris Brenzel, 74-77, 267. 9th ed. 2012.