The title is of course a reference to The Green Leaves of Summer, the theme to the John Wayne film The Alamo – click on that link to hear a version with lyrics. I’ll be humming that all day now…
But this post is about the RED leaves of one of my favourite shrubs in summer. It’s Cotinus coggygria, also known as the Eurasian smoke tree, purple smoke tree or, occasionally, the wig tree.
Most of the common names come from the appearance of the seed heads of the wild Cotinus coggygria, which has green leaves. But many of the cultivated varieties with red or purple leaves have seed heads looking more like pink candyfloss.
The Cotinus coggygria in my garden is a famous cultivar called “Notcutt’s Variety”. I’ve always wondered who it was named after, so I looked it up. Apparently the Notcutt of the name was Roger Crompton Notcutt (known as RCN), who was born in 1869. He had a keen interest in nature, particularly in the growing of plants, and acquired the Broughton Road Nursery in Ipswich while he was still in his teens.
RCN became particularly interested in the many new trees and shrubs being sent back by plant hunters like Forest Wilson and Kingdom Ward and grew on many in the nursery and introduced them to cultivation.
His catalogue, which listed 961 varieties in 1897, grew to 2,724 varieties in 1936, including 19 plants raised and selected by RCN. One of these was Cotinus “Notcutts Variety”, which he raised and selected in 1928.
For more about the history of his nursery, which is still going strong, see this link.
Another famous red-leaved cultivar is Cotinus coggygria “Royal Purple”.
I find the Cotinus gives good value and interest for most of the year. The only slight problem is that it’s multi-trunked and can therefore become an odd shape. And if you prune it back, it won’t flower the next year, as it flowers only on year-old stems.
The leaves have a lovely way of trembling in the breeze and, if the wind is in the “wrong” direction, the leaves show their pale backs. They also seem to be a different colour in varying lighting conditions, as shown by these pictures I have taken of my Cotinus through the year…
Unusually for me, I haven’t yet explained the Latin name. That’s because there doesn’t seem to be a lot to it. Apparently “Cotinus” is from kotinos, the ancient Greek name for the wild olive and coggygria is the Greek name for the smoke tree.
My Cotinus does well in the sunniest part of my shady garden, on what was originally clay soil but with lots of natural leaf mould. But it is said to work best on poor soils in full sun. Enjoy!