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Though a keen gardener, I often struggle to keep the garden looking colourful because of the overhanging trees which cast much of it into dappled shade and so limit the number of flowering plants I'm able to successfully cultivate. As a consequence, I tend to rely quite heavily on foliage, especially from shrubs to provide year round colour and interest. One of my particular favourites is a shrub which provides a zing of purple. It's Cotinus Coggygria or put more simply and descriptively, the Smoke Bush. The common name is derived from the summer flowers which are very small, creamy peach-pink blossoms which grow in plumes to hover over the foliage and when viewed from a distance look exactly like a smoky haze.
The variety I have growing in my garden is called Royal Purple, though strictly speaking the purple is much more of a dark bronze or coppery brown except for new growth or at certain times of the day when the leaves seem to catch the rays of the sun and take on a distinctly purplish hue. This is a shrub which looks good all through the growing season but when caught in a certain light can look absolutely spectacular and it really stands out if planted next to another shrub with light green or variegated foliage. There are green leaved varieties of this shrub but they can look quite drab, especially when compared to their more dramatically coloured brethren and only come into their own when flowering though if a green and purple variety were planted next to each other, they'd provide great colour contrast.
The Smoke Bush is a deciduous shrub which can grow to a tree-like height of 25 feet or thereabouts if left unpruned, although that would take a good 15 or 20 years to achieve. Of the two growing in my garden, one is now about five or six years old and stands currently at roughly six feet, the other younger one is only about half that height. The leaves are a rounded oval and when fully opened lie almost horizontal from the stem. The new leaves come through as a deep reddish purple though they do also sometimes have a slight greenish tinge but that soon disappears and the older leaves have a matte surface. An added bonus with this shrub is that when it rains, the raindrops stay on the leaves like little drops of sparkling mercury which creates a very pretty effect. Even when it isn't raining, this shrub provides movement in the garden as its foliage is very soft and thin in texture, so the slightest breeze sets all the leaves fluttering and trembling.
This is a very obliging shrub which isn't too particular about where it's planted and will thrive in either full sun or semi-shade, in just about any soil type and it also doesn't care which direction it faces. One of my plants faces south, the other smaller one is against a north east facing wall and both seem happy with their spots in the garden though I suspect that the north easterly facing one might not find it quite as easy to flower. It currently hasn't flowered at all but I think that may be because I pruned it back quite hard at the beginning of the season.
Sadly, because of its deciduous nature, the shrub doesn't add much to the garden during the winter months, although it really puts on a spectacular autumn show as its last hurrah with the leaves turning the most wonderful crimson red before they fall.
In the time that I've had these shrubs, we've had two very harsh winters and they both came through without any appreciable damage so it's fair to say this shrub is very hardy. As for propagation, last autumn I took several cuttings, stuck them in a pot, put them in a cold plastic greenhouse over the winter and forgot about them. Come the spring, I thought they'd all died but one brave cutting has clung on to life and I now have a new plant, though it's only about 9 inches high at present. These shrubs aren't particularly fast growers, only putting on about 12 inches of growth a year (or at least that's been my experience), so I think it will be a year or so yet before my new baby gets a spot in the garden.
These shrubs don't come cheap, I'm afraid, and a well grown specimen in a 3 litre pot is likely to set you back at least £10 plus, but if you're prepared to take on a smaller plant and grow it on yourself, there are bargains to be had on eBay.
Cotinus Coggygria is a beautiful shrub and even though it lies dormant throughout the winter, it still richly deserves its place in the garden.