PLANT OF THE WEEK #6: Cotinus 'Grace'

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?


  1. Michael I love Cotinus in general and have written a profile for my garden group in south west WA. I had 4 varieties in the garden I have just sold and Grace was the star for visitors. I love Flame which appered to be a smaller grower. The flowers when picked early hold their colour for years. One of my friends still has a dried bunch I gave her in her hall looking good and unusual to most people. Mine never got watered so possibly may have grown larger elsewhere. I pruned the long gangly stems back to shape but otherwise left them and got plenty of flowers. The species coggyria I was training as a tree and the nana one I dug up and have in a pot to take to my new garden. I have already purchased Grace again to plant.
    IN the entrance car park to the Savill gardens in England they had a line of the limey coloured Gingko underplanted with either Grace or Royal Purple which they pollarded so chase the spectacular Spring foliage contrasts. Maybe no flowers but so spectacular to see them massed like that. I saw pollarded ones in a lot of English gardens which indicates that they dont go for the flowers much

    As a drought proof, minimal care plant I think they are right up there with a bit of judicious care. Thanks for highlighting them

    1. Thanks Julie, yeah, it’d be good to eventually get comparative profiles of the various varieties. I was blown away by a row of Cotinus ‘Young Lady’ in Matt Reed’s garden (one of the owners of Antique Perennials – his garden was on last Friday’s ed of Gardening Australia). Unbelievable heavy flowering, and though it was in full leaf, it looked like it had the standard awkward, arthritic branching, but this seemed less compromising in a shrub of only 1.5 or so metres. Can’t imagine they’d be pretty in winter, but it’d be a small price to pay for good foliage, amazing flowers and great autumn colour

  2. Love all Cotinus, I have C Grace in view of my kitchen window and I love looking at it through out the seasons. Especially magical when in all it’s autumn glory and covered in rain drops…

    1. Likewise – I have one through which I look to the low western light from our pantry. It’s like looking through stained glass

  3. I’ve been growing ‘Grace’ for about 20 years now. Central Victoria. I’ve tried not pruning too hard and pruning ruthlessly. I’ve tried pruning hard in winter and then pruning again in early November. Still my plant persists in sending out long whippy growths! I looked at them this afternoon – at least 3-4m in length! But I generally get some flowers and they look ethereal with the dew on them in the early morning. A challenging plant but I forgive all when they colour in autumn! Sublime amber, orange and red! And they hold their colour when you press them!

    1. This is great info, Melanie. ‘Grace’ is an outrageously strong grower, and it seems like it just can’t be tamed. I don’t know whether David Glenn has ever pruned his at Lambley. It’s a huge shrub, the branching of which (despite the name) is graceless. But that seems much less worrying when you at least have consistent vigour over the plant, and don’t get that awkward thing of a range of fine twigs and big fat strong shoots alongside each other.

  4. My favorite smoke tree is Cotinus coggygria ‘Purple Supreme’. I love the rich reddy-purple color of the leaves, especially when the leaves are backlit by the sun.
    On a practical note: I previously inherited a cotinus in a pool garden located right alongside the pool… this tree flowered profusely every year – we’d spend hours with the pool net scooping up all the smoky plumes and emptying the skimmer buckets. Not a lot of fun !!!

    1. Hadn’t thought of that. But the solution is obvious. Fill in the pool

  5. A very delayed comment and question. I inherited my Cotinus ‘Grace’ in a our rental property some years ago and it was already quite mature and now has branches of up to 5cm in diameter. The biggest issue is this makes for a very sturdy framework for possums to climb and eat every bit of foliage. This year it was obliterated. So, it either has to go completely, or I can attempt a severe cut back down to short stumps perhaps. What do you all reckon?! Experiment with the cut back and rip it out in spring if it doesn’t recover? It’s such a beauty when it’s left alone by the wildlife…

  6. I have a standard form of Cotinus.Coggygria ‘Royal Purple’ which I’d like to use a screen by a fence. The head seems to be getting leggy with leaves only at the ends of the branches. How should I prune it to get a dense cover?

    1. In winter you can cut it as hard as you want – almost like a hybrid tea rose. It will then produce strong upright growths that you can just trim back lightly in subsequent years, so keep it bushy. So the hard cut back is just to restart it in foliage lower down. The more gentle pruning from then on will mean more twiggy, dense growth. Having said that, as a deciduous shrub, it’s not the best for covering a fence. Perhaps cover the fence with an evergreen climber and take the pressure off the Cotinus, allowing it to just be ornamental?

  7. Thought it worth mentioning we inherited a smoke bush here in the Southern Highlands of NSW, growing happily in clay fill (does drain), but even more interesting is we regularly experience very strong westerly winds, and it withstands them comfortably.

    1. That’s such useful info, Peter, thanks. Great to know of shrubs capable of growing – happily! – on rubbish soil, and in crazy windy conditions

  8. Love this post and the reminder to re-read… this is my second year with my cotinus grace. The first there was not much competition from surrounding plants and I cut it back hard at the end of winter and got 3m growth and very leggy. This year i did a heavy cut back in winter and have been trailing a summer prune. When ever i see a cane getting too tall or out of shape I take it off close to the main trunk.. its not long before i have new fresh shoots. The bus is a manageable 1.5m generally with lots of nice fresh leaves and canes, i am preferring this method for the freshness it gives. The plan is to leave a few in touched canes in winter to see if I can do both flowers and fresh lushness

    1. There’s certainly something in that idea of a summer prune. What it comes down to (I think), is that pretty much all new growth wants to remain unbranched, for this growing season, unless forced to. So a super-hard cut back in winter will always result in long, upright, non-flowering (unless, from my observations, a period of dry is followed by late summer rains) shoots. Better not to prune at all if you want a rounded, must-branced shrub. Each shoot will then branch – maybe two or three shoots – from the tip when new growth starts in spring. I tried leaving some really fine twigs unpruned this winter, while cutting the rest hard, in order to see if I could get a balance of strong unbranched growth and a few flowers. It worked, but the flowers were deeply embedded in, and therefore nearly invisible, amongst the new shoots. Keep us informed on how your technique works out!

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