Where There’s Smoke...

Where There’s Smoke...

Looking for a little sizzle to light up your landscape? Spark a blaze of five-alarm charm with the hottest-looking tree you’ve never heard of: the American smoke tree

American smoke tree (Cotinus obovatus), not to be confused with the European smoke tree, grows in disjointed populations in the east-central part of the United States with its Texas population in the Hill Country area.

You may have heard of this tree by some of its other common names: Texas smoke tree, wild smoke tree, smoke tree, smokebush or chittamwood. This ornamental tree usually grows to about 15 feet tall and wide, has a spreading habit and is a member of the sumac family Anacardiaceae. This is the same family that brings us the more familiar cashew and mango.

In the Hill Country, if you’re lucky, you can find the smoke tree growing on east or north facing slopes at the base of hills, usually about 200 yards from a stream or river. Contrary to its natural site conditions, it’s rather drought tolerant and can succumb to an early death if overwatered.

Considered a specimen tree, American smoke tree is rather rare in the Hill Country, but incredibly beautiful. In spring, the male trees produce the fuzzy, feathery, colorful plumes that give this tree its common name. In fall, you’ll be overwhelmed by the striking, vibrant fall color that can range from deep purple to pumpkin orange to golden yellow, depending on site conditions.

Depending on where you travel in Central Texas other colorful Sumac family members are ubiquitous, and are represented by the common, but beautiful, prairie flame-leaf sumac, aromatic sumac, evergreen sumac and little-leaf sumac. American smoke tree is recommended for the Hill Country, so it may or may not perform well in clay soils. If you find that your site conditions don’t work for this tree, opt for another sumac family member mentioned above.

Due to the recent interest in native plants, homeowners and commercial businesses are planting more and more of these species in order to benefit native wildlife populations, and to help lower lawn maintenance costs. Native plants are a win-win. They support wildlife populations that help disperse seed, pollinate our food crops — and these plants require minimal maintenance. They’re also incredible at reducing landscape water consumption, if properly managed.

Did you know a native yard can thrive on very little, if any, supplemental water? If you’re making landscape changes, take this into consideration. It is possible to have a water-thrifty landscape without compromising beauty.

Whether you plan on retiring your irrigation system or opt to make it more efficient, call 210-704-SAVE to schedule you free irrigation consultation with one of our conservation consultants. Your landscape changes may help you get some money back.

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Sarah Galvan

About our expert

Sarah Galvan

Sarah Galvan is a conservation consultant and has been passionate about gardening since she was a child. She's an arborist, herbalist, Texas master naturalist and holds a native landscape certification. Before coming to SAWS, Galvan worked as a native landscape designer where she focused on supporting native birds and pollinator populations. When she’s not answering gardening questions or working on her biology degree, Galvan enjoys hiking, kayaking, bird and butterfly watching, and competing in plant identification competitions.