It takes a lot to make me love a shrub. I fully acknowledge and am grateful for the critical role shrubs play in the anatomy of a good garden, but I rarely really love them.
Cotinus ‘Grace’, however, is a stand out. Very few shrubs score in more than one or two boxes, while this cotinus achieves a high point score in at least three categories – foliage, flower and autumn colour.
The foliage is suffused with deep red, and is captivatingly rounded – I don’t know why this should be such a good thing, but it is. Maybe it’s the fact that it’s held so beautifully as well – outward, in regular spacing and on very fine pedicels, in such a way to create some impression of tessellation (as can beeches (Fagus sp) , and southern beeches (Nothofagus sp.), though I’ve yet to nail a good description of this effect. If you can nail it, please pass it on).
Then there’s the flowers, and subsequent seed heads. These are like those of no other shrub, creating a misty, cloud-like effect (and hence the name smoke-bush). They’re produced terminally, on shortish shoots off last year’s wood, and look good from flowering right through into autumn.
And then, finally, the autumn colour. The very best foliage colour appears on the plain green forms, such as Cotinus ‘Flame’, but ‘Grace’ is very good indeed.
They’re the beauty boxes that it ticks. The practical boxes it ticks, brilliantly, are those of drought tolerance – I give it no water at all – and ‘integratability’. It’s an easy shrub to get going amongst other, quite competitive planting, as it can quickly rise over and above the surrounding planting, that would make compost of most young evergreen shrubs.
The one category in which it loses points, and does so disgracefully, is in regard to overall shape. Cotinus ‘Grace’ branches out at odd and inelegant angles, ‘so that they behave’ (borrowing from Christopher Lloyd’s description of Elaeagnus pungens) ‘like ingrowing toenails’. It seems to me there’s two ways of managing this – either never prune it at all, so that it eventually tames its cane-like growth, and turns into a large, rounded shrub, with a reasonable outline, or prune it very, very hard each year, as you’d prune a hybrid tea rose.
The big sacrifice with the latter method is that you’re unlikely to get flowers. Flowering normally occurs on shoots off last year’s wood. If you cut all that wood off, in pruning ‘back to stumps’, you’ll remove the potential to flower. That may sound like too high a price to pay, but the first time I visited the High Line in New York, the Cotinus ‘Grace’ had all been very hard-pruned, and the result was long, unbranched vertical canes to about 3m – more of the growth form of bamboo than a normal woody shrub. It was sensational! I was back there the following spring, and they hadn’t pruned like that again over winter. The result, with small side shoots off the long wands, was as ridiculous as the previous effect was fabulous.
Perhaps the best I’ve ever seen Cotinus ‘Grace’ grown was in a gravelled courtyard, with three plants grown as small multi-stemmed trees. They’d clearly been trained to have three or four main trunks, which were then kept free of any foliage or regrowth, and were cut back to a point overhead each year, from which they branched out vigorously, creating a wonderful overhead canopy.
Having said that you don’t get flowers if you prune really hard, I’ve found that in summers during which we get some mid-summer rainfall, long shoots from spring put on a second burst of growth, and then produce late summer/autumn flowers, providing the best of both worlds – long, upright, unbranched canes, and fabulous terminal flowers.
How does Cotinus ‘Grace’ perform for you? Is there another form of Cotinus that you prefer?