Regional Picks: Plant This, Not That– Southern Plains

Fine Gardening - Issue 138

1. Overused: Smoke tree 

Alternative: American smoke tree 

Name: Cotinus coggygria and cvs.

 Name: Cotinus obovatus

American smoke tree 

Name: Cotinus obovatus

Zones: 4 to 8

Size: 30 feet tall and 25 feet wide

Conditions: Full sun to light afternoon shade; tolerates most soils, although it prefers a slightly acidic pH

American smoke tree’s overall growth habit, large foliage, and rich red fall color make it worth seeking out as an alternative to the smaller (12 feet tall and 15 feet wide), more readily available, and better-known purple-toned smoke tree from Asia. American smoke tree, even during its first year, provides immediate gratification due to its fall color and “smoky” summer flowers. Over time, this indigenous smoke tree will grow to yield appreciable shade in the landscape.

2. Overused: Whitebud 

Alternative: Pearlbush 

Name: Cercis canadensis f. alba

 Name: Exochorda serratifolia


USDA Hardiness Zones: 4 to 8

Size: 8 feet tall and 6 feet wide

Conditions: Full sun to light shade; tolerates most soils and pH levels not exceeding 7.8

Pearlbush (actually a small tree rather than a bush) offers a display of white flowers similar to the more traditional whitebud but, upon closer inspection, reveals delicate petals laid out in a spectacular pinwheel-like arrangement. Unlike a whitebud that can grow up to 25 feet tall, this tree stays small, making it a valuable “utilitree” that, even without pruning, will not grow into power lines.

3. Overused: Fringe tree 

Alternative: Chinese Fringe Tree

Name: Chionanthus virginicus

 Name: Chionanthus retusus

Chinese Fringe Tree

Zones: 5 to 9

Size: 15 feet tall and wide

Conditions: Full sun; tolerates most soils

Chinese fringe tree, rather than the typical fringe tree, often yields striking exfoliating bark even at a young age, providing 12 months of ornamental interest from this single trait alone. Its attractive 3- to 4-inch-long elliptical leaves are dark, shiny green, and almost leatherlike in appearance. Couple the blemish-free foliage with white spring flowers on a beautifully symmetrical small tree and it quickly becomes apparent that this Asian gem is not your ordinary neighborhood tree.

Mike Schnelle is an extension specialist at Oklahoma State University in Still­water, Oklahoma.

Photos, except where noted: Country Farm and Garden, courtesy of Mike Schnelle, Missouri Botanical Garden PlantFinder, Bill Johnson, Stephanie Fagan

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