smoke bush

The Bush of Smoke and Fire

Most of the random garden photos I’ve taken lately feature the incredible colours of and patterns on the about-to-depart leaves of the smoke bush, Cotinus coggygria.

Smoke bush, November 2016

Smoke bush is a variable and versatile shrub. There is a form whose summer foliage is green, but most of the ones I see hereabouts are one of the purple-leaved forms. Mine is called “Royal Purple,” but there is a plant I’m acquainted with that’s an interesting red-green with purple undertones, and whose fall colour borders on lurid.

I took this picture with my phone; the colours came out a bit weird.

I took this picture with my phone; the colours came out a bit weird.

Smoke bushes may be handled in different ways in the garden. Left to themselves, they can become small trees — “small” meaning up to 20 feet tall, but they tend to be almost as wide, so you need a lot of room for an unrestrained plant. They take pruning well — anything from trimming last season’s growth by one-third in spring to cutting the whole bush down to stubs. Unpruned, they bloom in summer, putting out clusters of tiny flowers surrounded by pink fluff (the “smoke”). Pruned plants, obviously, don’t bloom, but some gardeners prefer the foliage to the flowers. Severe pruning — which is what I did to my plant last spring — results in really vigorous, whippy shoots. I found it necessary to do some mid-season trimming to keep the plant within bounds. I think I’ll stick to a more moderate treatment for the next few years.

This plant was cut down to 2 feet in spring, and trimmed in summer, and still topped out at more than 6 feet, and 4 feet wide.

This plant was cut down to 2 feet in spring, and trimmed in summer, and still topped out at more than 6 feet, and 4 feet wide.

For me, the whole point of growing a smoke bush comes in the autumn, when it starts to change colour — everything from yellow through shades of orange, into reds and purples, and even some green emerging. Many leaves develop little brownish-grey marks on either side of the centre rib that turn them into little works of art.

Looks as though carefully painted.

Looks as though carefully painted.

 

Smoke bush, November 2016

 

More good features — smoke bush is drought tolerant and does well in light shade, although full sun brings out the fall colours best. It seems to be pest-free, although I think I read that verticillium wilt is a potential problem.

Smoke bush is a trouble-free, versatile shrub with much to recommend it. It looks good with other plants too.

 

Smoke bush and Senecio "Sunshine"

Smoke bush and Senecio “Sunshine”

 

Smoke bush and fern

Smoke bush and fern

Another Fall in the Garden– and a “Change Agent”

I love autumn for its colours — some subtle, others spectacular, always fleeting.

Two kinds of purple asters (names unknown to me) in the front garden

Two kinds of purple asters (names unknown to me) in the front garden

 

A favourite scene in the back garden

A favourite scene in the back garden

 

Cotinus "Royal Purple" in fall colours -- much better than its summer purple!

Cotinus “Royal Purple” in fall colours — much better than its summer purple!

Cotinus leaves often develop these artistic-looking patterns as they change colour

Cotinus leaves often develop these artistic-looking patterns as they change colour

 

A lone bloom on Gentian acaulis -- rare blue colour in the autumn garden

A lone bloom on Gentian acaulis — rare blue colour in the autumn garden

A windstorm last week blew most of the leaves off the maples. Raking awaits!

And the Change Agent?

Nelly by the pond

Nelly by the pond

Nelly the Newfoundland puppy (4 months old)

Nelly the Newfoundland puppy (4 months old)

The garden won’t be the same…

The Garden in November

November is perhaps the “deadest” month in the garden, or maybe “dullest” is the better word. The leaves have fallen and faded and even the autumn lingerers have finished blooming. After the usual wind and rain storms, chaos and ruin prevail — wet leaves, withered stalks and tired looking greens. We don’t usually get snow here, so there is no white blanket to cover the wreckage.

November 9, 2013

But this is the West Coast and climate zone 8, so not everything is dormant. Kale struggles on in the vegetable/herb patch.

November 30, 2013

A green and white grass is bright against a broad-leafed Carex and evergreen Euphorbia.

November 9, 2013

The last maple leaves decorate the pond. (Let’s not think about the layer of oozing muck they form when they sink to the bottom).

November 9, 2013

The smoke bush (Cotinus “Royal Purple”) goes through its gorgeous colour changes before losing its leaves.

November 9, 2013

November 9, 2013

November 9, 2013

And on this last day of November, a dark and rainy one (with snow and serious cold — minus 5C or 23F — predicted for next week), the winter jasmine, Jasminum nudiflorum, is in full bloom on the trellis, and snowdrops are poking their noses up here and there. In fortunate Zone 8, the growing season never ends, just slows down a bit.

November 30, 2013

But it’s too early to think about spring.

Look! See! Now!

There is a smoke bush (Cotinus species) near my workplace that is right now in fall glory.  All summer its leaves are an interesting green-flushed red, much lighter than the popular variety “Royal Purple.” This plant, whose variety I do not know, grows in full sun on a clay soil. I think it gets regular watering in summer from underground sprinklers. A few weeks ago, it began changing colour and has now attained a combination of reds, orange, orange-yellow and remnants of green that make it glow as if with an inner fire.

Smoke bush in glowing autumn colour

I have admired this shrub at this stage of colour the past three or four autumns, and I’m happy to have this picture, because visual perfection in plants is a fleeting phenomenon. This is one of the most important things I’ve learned as a gardener.

Gardens are part of the natural world, however manipulated by us, and are therefore ever-changing. Every week, every day, even, presents a new scene. Plants go from sprout to stalk to bud to bloom to seed to withering in a matter of months, and the gardener had better be paying attention, amid all the tasks of her busy life, or she will miss the point of the exercise altogether. An individual bloom, of a rose or peony, for example, lasts a week at most. A spike of delphiniums holds its perfection for maybe two weeks before individual florets start to get that “I’ve had enough” look. Fall displays of coloured foliage last for weeks, but inevitably a windstorm comes and it’s all over. I fully expect to find that smoke bush more or less bare when I go back to work next week.

But these things are cyclical; they recur. Every year plants grow, bloom and fade. Old gardeners know this, and look for their favourite sights every season, reassured to see the crocuses in spring (and fall), the daylilies’ bloom scapes in summer, the smoke bushes going through their colour changes in fall. The thing is to look and see everything there is to be seen, every time, because nothing lasts forever. The blue poppies are overwhelmed by competing tree roots or succumb to crown rot. The roses are defoliated by black spot and refuse to flower. The guy across the street decides he doesn’t want that smoke bush any more and cuts it down. All of these things are bad, but if you really paid attention and soaked up the colours and perfumes and textures when they were there, at least you have memories to draw upon.

This applies even more to the world beyond your garden gate, where you have no say in what happens. Pay attention. Really see that tree, that interesting rock, that nifty old house. Next week or next year they may be gone, and if you didn’t store up memories of them, you won’t even be able to remember that they were there. But if you go through the world with your eyes open, you will see all sorts of wonderful things.

Moss between stones