The Q&A Archives: Leggy, Unkempt Appearance Of Royal Purple Smoke Tree

Question: I think I inappropriately overpruned our royal purple smoke
tree. It looks leggy, with anemic looking little puffs at
the end of long, mostly bare branches. How do I correct the
problem at this point, just leave it alone and hope next
year is better? trim again? We have purchased many of your
plants and trees (including this royal purple smoke tree) through our local nursery (Portland Avenue Nursery in
Tacoma, WA, and have been happy with them. Thanks for any
help you can offer.


Answer: Pruning inappropriately can certainly cause misshapen plants, but because you describe your smoke tree as having bare branches, I wonder if the growing conditions are less than ideal. Cotinus (smoke tree) is one of those plants that seems to thrive on neglect. They are naturally shrubby plants but can be trained into a tree form. They prefer full sun and thrive in dry, rocky soils. If yours is planted in an area that gets regular moisture (such as in a lawn or flower bed), make sure the soil drains quickly or the tree will eventually die. At this point, I'd leave the tree alone, except for deep, thorough watering once each week. In the late fall or winter you can prune the branches back to force new growth between the branch tips and the trunk of your tree. You can remove some of the branches altogether and shorten others until you're happy with the shape of the tree. In the spring it should fill out by developing new leaves and new stems along the remaining branches. Best wishes with your smoke tree.

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