How to Pick the Right Plants to Showcase Your Trees

The right plants in the right place give your garden or yard a pleasing view. The right plants grown with your trees help your trees stand out. Here’s a recipe for success to showcase smokebush in your yard. Here’s a guest post by Caleb Melchior.

How to Avoid a Black Hole With Smokebush

Purple smokebushes (Cotinus coggygria Atropurpurea Group) in well-lighted photographs show their sultry foliage. Backlit, they glow with inner radiance, highlighting all the magnificent blooms in front of them. Such glories rarely materialize in home gardens. We introduce them with the best intentions, but without an ever-present backlight to make them glow, those smokebushes sit sullen, blah—giant blobs that suck the color out of everything around them.


Golden Spirit smokebush (C. c. Golden Spirit, or ‘Ancot’; USDA Zones 5–8) has the expected fantastic orbicular leaves and easy-going nature of other cultivars. And instead of muddy burgundy-purple colors, its leaves are a shrill gold, tinted with lime when they emerge in the spring.

Avoid the black hole by selecting the right plants—including the right cultivar of smokebush that shines all summer long. Golden Spirit smokebush (C. c. Golden Spirit, or ‘Ancot’; USDA Zones 5–8) has orbicular leaves and an easy-going nature. And instead of muddy burgundy-purple colors, its leaves are a shrill gold, tinted with lime in the spring. They ripple into copper and crimson in the fall. It’s a sturdy and upright shrub, dense with foliage, four to six feet high and a little less wide. To thrive, it requires little more than moist soil and an occasional grooming for sunburnt leaves.

For the best color and leaf size, plant Golden Spirit in partial shade and don’t let it dry out. It’ll grow in full sun, but its foliage will bleach during the scorching months. Reliably moist soil will enable it to grow its largest and most colorful foliage. Its habit is a bit awkward if it’s left to do its own thing, so prune it back hard in late spring for the best leaves and fullest shape.

The Right Plants — 3 Ideal Companions

For a spring complement, incorporate a few tulips into your bulb palette. Try ‘Ballerina’ and ‘Purple Dream’ (Zones 3–8), both elegant lily-flowered cultivars whose flowers, the color of mandarins and crushed violets, respectively, will coincide with the smokebush’s first leafing. Both of these tall (18- to 24-inch) cultivars should persist for several growing seasons before needing to be replanted.

right plants

Ballerina tulips are a delightful springtime companion for smokebush.

Armenian cranesbill (Geranium psilostemon; Zones 4–9) can fill the space when the tulips have faded, and it’ll offer sharp contrast to the smokebush’s foliage with its shrill magenta petals surrounding striking black-purple eyes. It rambles around a bit, spreading two to three feet wide in a trailing, mounding shape. Its more wayward stems will grow up into the lower branches of the smokebush, studding the bright leaves with dots of magenta.

For autumn, mass a few clumps of the azure monkshood (Aconitum carmichaelii ‘Arendsii’; Zones 3–7) directly in front of the smokebush. Later-flowering than other monkshood cultivars, it erupts into nine-inch wands of helmet-shaped flowers on arching two-foot stems in September, just as the smokebush foliage turns to flame. The monkshood’s pure violet-blue color contrasts vividly against the smokebush’s crimson, copper and gold fall foliage—making this corner of the garden as brilliant as a supernova.  

Caleb Melchior completed his master’s degree in landscape architecture at Kansas State University and is a regular contributing editor to Horticulture. hereThis story originally appeared in the July/August 2014 issue of Horticulture. Read back issues .

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