Light Up Your Garden with American Smoketree

I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about native trees for small gardens. I’m working with a new landscape design client who has a fairly small back yard that she wants help redesigning. Like most homeowners, she wants her garden to be a quiet and private respite after a hectic day but she also wants a place to grow veggies, year round color and interest and she wants her garden to be a wildlife habitat. She is genuinely excited about the possibility of enticing all sorts of birds, butterflies and bees into her backyard haven. And I am excited to have a client who places a high value on creating a garden with wildlife in mind.

Image of American Smoketree

American Smoketree

No matter where you garden, whether it’s in Connecticut or California, if you are creating a wildlife habitat, it’s important to use some native plants. One of the trees I’ve introduced my client to is American smoketree (Cotinus obovatus), a native of the southern US.  An under-used old-fashioned favorite, American smoketree is perfect for small urban gardens.

It’s tolerant of a host of adverse conditions that will eventually undermine many other trees, including wind, drought, pollution and soil compaction. This native tree prefers slightly alkaline soil and a sunny, hot, and dry location. A rounded, open tree, growing to about 20’ x 20’ here in Connecticut, it is hardy in zones 4 – 9.

Flower panicles of American Smoketree

For some reason, American smoketree always seem to plays second fiddle to its more showy and well-known cousin, the smokebush (Cotinus coggygria).  Long, pale pink flower panicles surround the tree in clouds of smoke beginning in the late spring and often persist for almost two months. Shiny, bluish-green summer foliage turns the most spectacular shades of purple, red, orange and yellow in the fall. American smoketree is arguably the best native tree for fall color. When you add in flaky, exfoliating bark, you have a tree that provides a full season of interest to any garden, big or small.

Use American smoketree as a specimen tree near a patio or terrace or as a focal point in the corner of your garden. American smoketree is a welcome addition to a sunny mixed border and would welcome an under-planting of spring-flowering bulbs.

Do you have a favorite under-used native tree that you’ve planted, or hope to plant, in your garden?

Note:  Images come from and