Underutilized Trees for Urban Use: American Smoketree

A young specimen and adjacent mature one can be found on the Hofstra University campus on Long Island. Photo by Michelle Sutton
A young single-stem specimen and adjacent mature multi-stem one can be found on the Hofstra University campus on Long Island. Photo by Michelle Sutton

During her 2014 New York ReLeaf Conference plenary talk, Urban Horticulture Institute Director Nina Bassuk lifted up some underutilized trees for urban use. One of them, American smoketree (Cotinus obovatus) was growing just outside the conference room doors on the Hofstra University campus, where a mature specimen stood protectively behind a newly planted youngster. American smoketree is native to the U.S. South and Midwest.

Naturally and by training, American smoketree has a more tree-like habit than European smoketree (C. coggygria), and it matures up to 30 feet (9 m) tall and 20-30 feet (6 to 9 m) wide—twice as big as C. coggygria. It is hardy to zone 4 or 5, depending on which reference you consult. It is deer resistant and tolerant of drought and poor soils but doesn’t like to have wet feet for prolonged periods. Missouri Botanical Garden voted it one of its “Tried and Trouble-Free” tree species.

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