1286 Cotinus obovatusCommon Names: American smoke tree,smoketree,chittamwood Family: Anacardiaceae (cashew Family)
American smoke tree is a small tree that gets up to 30 ft (10 m) tall with a rounded crown up to 25 ft (8 m) across, or, in some situations, a bushy, multi-stemmed shrub only a few feet tall. The deciduous leaves are oval to obovate, around 5 in (12 cm) long, with smooth, sometimes wavy, margins. The leaves start out pinkish bronze with silky hairs on the undersides, shed the hairs and turn bluish green in summer, then become brilliant purple, orange or scarlet in autumn. The sticky sap that bleeds from cuts to the stems and scale-like bark has a strong odor. The inflorescence is a loose, elongated cluster 6-12 in (15-30 cm) long of tiny pinkish gray flowers. The inflorescence is not all that showy, but after blooming, the aborted flowers develop fluffy billowing hairs that makes the clusters appear, from a distance, as hazy puffs of smoke. The show lasts well into autumn. Compare to European smoke tree (Cotinus coggygria), a species that is actually better known to American gardeners. European smoke tree has elliptical leaves that lack hairs on the underside.
Cotinus obovatus has a limited natural distribution in the southeastern US. It occurs in scattered locations in the mountains of Tennessee, south to northern Alabama, and west to the Ozark Plateau in Missouri, and also on the Edwards Plateau in Texas. Smoke tree is a rare component in mixed woods on limestone glades, rocky hillsides and canyons in the mountains up to 3,300 ft (1000 m) above sea level. It also occurs in nearly pure stands as a low shrub in thickets on the Edwards Plateau.
Light: American smoke tree does well in full sun or partial shade. Full sun gives the best development of fall color. Moisture: Smoke tree needs a moist but well drained soil and seems to do best when the soil is not overly fertile. Established specimens are drought tolerant. Do not over water or over fertilize. Hardiness: USDA Zones 4 - 8 . American smoke tree has been shown to thrive well north of its native range. Propagation: Fast growing soft-wood stem tips can be rooted in late spring or summer. Plant seed in autumn. Smoke tree sprouts from the roots when cut.
Enjoy American smoke tree in mixed shrub borders or as a specimen shrub for its interesting summertime smoky display and its brilliant fall foliage. The incomparable fall foliage color lasts for 3-4 weeks. The smoky display is especially striking when trees are planted in masses. Smoke tree is a low maintenance plant that tolerates poor, rocky, chalky and alkaline soils and withstands periods of drought. It should be more widely used and we need some cultivars!
The wood is orange-yellow, soft, and durable, and has been used for fence posts as well as a water soluble yellow dye.
Not as popular in gardens as the Eurasian species, Cotinus coggygria, American smoke tree deserves more attention. Some say American smoke tree produces the best fall color of any American native tree or shrub.
Steve Christman 5/26/17