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Cotinus obovatus: American Smoketree1

Edward F. Gilman and Dennis G. Watson 2


American Smoketree is most often seen as a large shrub 15 to 20 feet tall when grown in cultivation but can slowly become a 20 to 30-foot-tall, rounded tree with time, or in the wild. The bark on older specimens flakes off at the base of the trunk showing a dark grey to black exfoliating character. Multiple trunks eventually become twisted and gnarled. The 7 to 12-inch, fairly sparse, fuzzy panicles of springtime flowers give the plant an unusual, somewhat smoky effect but American Smoketree is most outstanding for its beautiful foliage. The five to six-inch-long leaves are pinkish-bronze when young, mature to a lush, dark blue/green then, in autumn, change into gorgeous shades of yellow, red, orange, or purple. Very striking in the fall, one of the best for fall color since it lasts three to four weeks. Enough cannot be said about the fall color - it must be seen to be believed. Not seen often enough in cultivation, American Smoketree may be in danger of extinction in the wild due to the large trees having been harvested for the yellow and orange dye found in their wood.

Figure 1. Middle-aged Cotinus obovatus: American Smoketree
Figure 1.  Middle-aged Cotinus obovatus: American Smoketree
Credit: Ed Gilman

General Information

Scientific name: Cotinus obovatus
Pronunciation: koe-TYE-nus ob-oh-VAY-tus
Common name(s): American Smoketree, Chittamwood
Family: Anacardiaceae
USDA hardiness zones: 5A through 8B (Fig. 2)
Origin: native to North America
Invasive potential: little invasive potential
Uses: deck or patio; specimen; street without sidewalk; container or planter; reclamation; trained as a standard; parking lot island < 100 sq ft; parking lot island 100-200 sq ft; parking lot island > 200 sq ft; sidewalk cutout (tree pit); tree lawn 3-4 feet wide; tree lawn 4-6 feet wide; tree lawn > 6 ft wide; urban tolerant; highway median
Availability: somewhat available, may have to go out of the region to find the tree

Figure 2. Range
Figure 2.  Range


Height: 20 to 30 feet
Spread: 15 to 25 feet
Crown uniformity: symmetrical
Crown shape: round
Crown density: moderate
Growth rate: slow
Texture: medium


Leaf arrangement: alternate (Fig. 3)
Leaf type: simple
Leaf margin: entire
Leaf shape: elliptic (oval), obovate
Leaf venation: pinnate
Leaf type and persistence: deciduous
Leaf blade length: 2 to 4 inches, 4 to 8 inches
Leaf color: blue or blue-green, green
Fall color: yellow, red, orange, purple
Fall characteristic: showy

Figure 3. Foliage
Figure 3.  Foliage


Flower color: pink, white/cream/gray
Flower characteristics: showy


Fruit shape: oval
Fruit length: less than .5 inch
Fruit covering: dry or hard
Fruit color: pink
Fruit characteristics: does not attract wildlife; showy; fruit/leaves not a litter problem

Trunk and Branches

Trunk/bark/branches: branches droop; showy; typically multi-trunked; thorns
Pruning requirement: needed for strong structure
Breakage: resistant
Current year twig color: gray, brown
Current year twig thickness: medium
Wood specific gravity: unknown


Light requirement: full sun, partial sun or partial shade
Soil tolerances: clay; sand; loam; alkaline; acidic; well-drained
Drought tolerance: high
Aerosol salt tolerance: low


Roots: not a problem
Winter interest: no
Outstanding tree: yes
Ozone sensitivity: unknown
Verticillium wilt susceptibility: susceptible
Pest resistance: resistant to pests/diseases

Use and Management

Smoketree is best used in a shrub border, or trained as a multiple-trunked patio or accent tree. It can be pruned to provide clearance beneath to allow for pedestrians to pass or for use as a street tree. The tree should be used more often in American landscapes.

A North American native, American Smoketree is tolerant of a wide range of adverse urban conditions - wet soil, wind, drought, and compacted soil. Plants grow well and are native to high pH, alkaline soil and should be located in full sun or partial shade. Best flowering, form, and overall attractiveness is achieved in full sun. May need occasional irrigation on sandy soil. It is reportedly difficult to transplant but this is easily overcome by growing in containers.

The cultivar `Red Leaf' is popular for its especially brilliant fall color. Other cultivars selected for consistent and superior fall color are likely to be made available in the near future.

Propagation is by seed (with difficulty), cuttings, or layering.

Pests and Diseases

No pests or diseases are of major concern.


1. This document is ENH367, one of a series of the Environmental Horticulture, UF/IFAS Extension. Original publication date November 1993. Revised December 2006. Reviewed February 2014. Visit the EDIS website at
2. Edward F. Gilman, professor, Environmental Horticulture Department; Dennis G. Watson, former associate professor, Agricultural Engineering Department, UF/IFAS Extension, Gainesville, FL 32611.

Publication #ENH367

Release Date:June 24, 2014

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