Dear Readers, if ever there was a plant to put one in mind of a Persian cat, this is it. Who could pass by without giving it a little stroke? Those fluffy, cloudy flowerheads are a result of most of the flowers aborting and turning into a mass of wispy plumes. The ones that do survive turn into little green fruits.
This shrub, in Muswell Hill, is probably the most splendid that I’ve ever seen, so I had to share it with you all.
The smoke bush comes from a great swathe of land, from Southern Europe right the way to Northern China. It’s a member of the Anacardiaceae or cashew family, and the family member that you might be most familiar with is the sumac . There is only one other member of the Cotinus genus, the American smoketree (Cotinus obovatus), which doesn’t have such smokey flowers but has the most extraordinary autumn colours. It is quite a rare tree, found only in a few pockets of forests in the south-eastern USA, and considered to be endangered.
I’ve also seen smoke bushes with purple foliage, which is all very well but I don’t think the ‘smoke’ contrasts as nicely as it does with the green foliage. What do you think?
Smoke bush is rich in tannins, and the bark, wood and leaves have all been used as a tonic, and as a treatment for stomach ulcers, diarrhoea and mouth inflammation.
The plant’s wood also produces a yellow dye which was known as young fustic, and was used in the carpet industry in the Eastern Mediterranean region. There was also a dye known as old fustic, which came from a tree known as Dyer’s Mulberry (Maclura tinctoria), which was used during WWI to dye soldiers’ uniforms. Old fustic was said to produce a longer-lasting colour than young fustic, but alas both of them have now been replaced with artificial dyes. I say ‘alas’, but I imagine the trees are relieved!
The wood is also very attractive – see the sculpture below by wood carver Tom Lowe at the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden in Richmond, Virginia. At the Garden they invite sculptors and wood carvers to work with the results of any pruning or tree surgery work that they need to do, and the results are often very pleasing.
And here, of course, is a poem. I love the last line. I, too, sometimes find, to my surprise, that I’m no longer sad.
I was hiking half a world from home
when I saw a smoke tree on the trail ahead
smolder into a lather of light, plush
as powder in the heat-choked air—
and clustered along spinules, thin
as capillaries, a tiny arson flared,
then rose into a stratosphere
where the ash of all I was and had
was rushing toward some distant ground
I’d planted once with such as this
in memory of someone dead, and from
that half a world away, a cloud returned
faltering with rain: I was no longer sad.
from The Burning of Troy
Photo One by By Jerzy Opioła (Poland) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=619871
Photo Three by By Photo by David J. Stang – source: David Stang. First published at ZipcodeZoo.com, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61240385
Photo Five from https://www.lewisginter.org/mementos-of-change/