can I prune my out of control smoke tree?

ladede(6)December 2, 2009

zone 6, we are coming into winter, almost. I have three that turninto two I think. Heck they are so old I forget. But they must be two different varieties. Can I prune now while I can or must I wait until March? Also I don't care if it doesn't flower , would be happier for leaves and structure. Will take a picture if everyone promises not to laugh.

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brandon7 TN_zone(7)

I'd prune anytime during dormancy. If your tree requires a significant amount of pruning, spread the pruning out over at least a couple of years to reduce unsightly, leggy growth reaction.

    Bookmark   December 2, 2009 at 3:30PM
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ken_adrian Adrian MI cold Z5

very frankly.. on the presumption that you dont care about next seasons flowers..

this is one plant you could probably run over with the truck .. and it will be the same size in a year or two ...

i had one.. which i planted 6 feet too close to the foundation .... and i cut it to about 6 inches.. and it was back over the gutters a few years later ... [it was planted about 4 feet from the house ... should have been 10 or 20 ... live and learn ...] .. i do seem to think there were a couple 2 or three foot 1/2 inch caliper sprouts that i left ....

if it really is too aggressive where it is... cut it to the ground and apply 100% roundup to the green band just inside the bark.. until it dies ...

just do whatever makes you happy.. you will be hard pressed to kill it ...


    Bookmark   December 2, 2009 at 4:02PM
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The recommended time to prune is late winter/early spring. I've encountered reports of this shrub being damaged by cold in some lower zones so I'd consider erring on the conservative side and wait until you see buds emerging. This is a shrub that is often coppiced or stooled to maintain at a moderate height and to emphasize foliage size and coloring, so will take some substantial pruning.

But if it were my plant, I'd wait :-)

    Bookmark   December 2, 2009 at 4:17PM
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whaas_5a(5A SE WI)

brandon7 brought about a good point, if you over prune it, it will become very leggy (unless you want that look).

Unless its causing a problem or just bothering you for that matter, I like gardengals recommendation for waiting till late winter/early spring.

    Bookmark   December 2, 2009 at 7:59PM
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Prune down to the frame the first week in March.
Look at the tree, with pruners in hand, cut off the side branches only with the pruners leaving about an inch and a half left of the branch. Don't prune the "trunks" unless you want it to grow up from the ground a fresh new smoke bush.
All the branches that you cut off will regrow and then some, and you will have gorgeous new leaves on your bushes.
To avoid "legginess" you have to cut it back hard.
Cut the entire branch off down to an inch or two.
Smoke bushes do not like to be trimmed like regular bushes.
Hard pruning is what they like.
If you cut it all the way down to the ground and just leave a little stub, it will regrow an entirely new smoke bush in a couple of years.
It is in the sumac family and has a liquid in the branches that smell like terpentine. This liquid has caused skin irritation for some people.
Good luck on your beautiful new refreshed smoke bush next spring.
Post a pic of the beautiful colors when the leaves grow in.

    Bookmark   December 2, 2009 at 10:37PM
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I will post a picture since its two plants I think one is all crummy looking although it was a prettier tree/bush this summer. Weeping smoke, thats what it looks like although I know there is no such animal.

The other is tall and leggy I think not sure what leggy means but I think it is. thanks

    Bookmark   December 2, 2009 at 11:17PM
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brandon7 TN_zone(7)

Pruning before spring will keep the tree from significant "bleeding". Some sources recommend not pruning this tree in spring at all. I don't think it's likely to hurt a healthy tree, but I'd still personally try to avoid pruning then.

I STRONGLY disagree with pretty much everything butterfly4u wrote. That's just NOT how you prune a tree!

Leggy just means unusually long narrow shoots that occur in response to hard pruning. The harder you prune, the more leggy the resulting growth will be.

    Bookmark   December 3, 2009 at 11:53AM
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whaas_5a(5A SE WI)

"To avoid "legginess" you have to cut it back hard"

Not true, cutting back hard will encourage legginess.

    Bookmark   December 3, 2009 at 12:10PM
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Just to mix things up, I agree with pretty much everything butterfly4u wrote :-) I've grown and coppiced these trees/shrubs annually in my own garden for years. Yes, they take hard pruning - coppicing is essentially removing ALL the top growth of the tree/shrub down to a predetermined framework. I have found that by doing this on a routine basis the plant does not become leggy. It does produce long, new growth shoots each season but since they are fully clothed with foliage, I would hesitate to call them 'leggy'.......I think that is what butterfly means. If left unpruned, the branches often develop foliage only at the outer, terminal ends -- to me this produces much more of a leggy appearance than the fully leafed branches resulting from coppicing. Of course the coppicing does remove the flowering potential or 'smoke' but what it does achieve is a dense, compact shrub with larger, bolder foliage and intense coloring.

And Brandon, I'm sure you understand the distinction between coppicing/stooling and regular pruning -- they are quite different methodologies and are utilizied to achieve different results. Smokebush, Cotinus coggygria, is one of a handful of large, tree-like shrubs that are routinely coppiced or hard pruned and with great success. And personally, I have never encountered any 'bleeding'. Hard pruning just as the new buds begin to emerge doe snot seem to produce this effect.

    Bookmark   December 3, 2009 at 12:43PM
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ken_adrian Adrian MI cold Z5

ok.. the debate has provided more info than most peeps need.. let me repeat this part:

just do whatever makes you happy.. you will be hard pressed to kill it

and add .... if its really bugging you... then the time to act is now... plants in my garden are there for my pleasure.. and when they start irritating the beegeebees out of me.. i take action .... and am wildly successful ... no matter what SHOULD be done .. or when ...

i have never pruned on some artificial scientific schedule ... it usually occurs when i walk by with the saw or shears.. and my patience is finally shot ...

just do whatever you want to make yourself happy .... you will not harm this plant.. at worst.. you will have to fix it later.. by pruning it again ...

think long and hard about if it is really what you want in that spot.. or whether you really need more than one there ...

good luck


ps: there are proper times to prune.. and if you had your entire life savings in 100 acres of 10,000 of these plants.. you would want to do it at the proper time , to avoid disease and bug problems... but IMHO it is not necessarily important to you and your 2 or 3 plants ....

    Bookmark   December 3, 2009 at 1:36PM
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brandon7 TN_zone(7)

"I have found that by (coppicing) on a routine basis the plant does not become leggy."

Refer back the original post. These trees are "old" and obviously haven't been coppiced on a regular basis. If this pruning practice is to be started now, it will need to be maintained to produce satisfactory results. I don't know, but I'd bet that's not what Ladede had in mind.

"I agree with pretty much everything butterfly4u wrote."

While some aspects of what Butterfly4u wrote sound vaguely like coppicing, many others didn't, at least to me. The descriptions sounded more like poor pruning practice.

"Smokebush, Cotinus coggygria, is one of a handful of large, tree-like shrubs that are routinely coppiced or hard pruned and with great success."

I see no reason to make the assumption that C coggygria is the tree in question. Probably even more often, Smoke Tree (see thread title) refers to C obovatus. While both can be coppiced, I'd bet many people would find the rather ugly mess left through winter and the lack of what most people grow the tree for (the "smoke" display) to be objectionable. Why would anyone want to do more work to produce a tree that was ugly in the winter and lacked the benefit that most people desire from the tree? 'Not that there's anything wrong with' coppicing.....but, at least in this case, it's sure not for me.

"I'm sure you understand the distinction between coppicing/stooling and regular pruning."

Ya know, it does seem like I've heard there was some kind of difference.

Here is a link that might be useful: Maybe a bad example, but still one example of reports of

    Bookmark   December 3, 2009 at 1:49PM
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whaas_5a(5A SE WI)

I feel a common name debate ready to erupt! lol

C coggygria is more commonly known as Smoke Bush
C obovatus is more commonly known as Smoke Tree

But I've heard both common names used for both plants.


Out of curiousity, what do you mean by "coppicing is essentially removing ALL the top growth of the tree/shrub down to a predetermined framework"? Mainly the predetermined framework. I I thought coppicing was removing all growth to 1-2" above ground level.

    Bookmark   December 3, 2009 at 5:43PM
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brandon7 TN_zone(7)

"I feel a common name debate ready to erupt!"

I sure hope not. We need to be careful not to make premature assumptions about common names, but I don't think we need to discuss it much more. It's been discussed in depth, between two of our regular contributes, in multiple other recent threads.

    Bookmark   December 4, 2009 at 9:04AM
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here they are the one looks like two but I think its one its outside of the fence. The smaller one is inside the fence. Has ground trunks too have no clue what to do with all of this.

    Bookmark   December 4, 2009 at 11:02AM
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whaas, coppicing does not have to be down to ground level (or close to) but it sometimes is. The method I've discussed is also known as "high coppicing" or if used with trees, pollarding. It is essentially the exact same process but with just a higher base (i.e., the 'stool') to work from.

With my own smoke bushes (and with some other shrubs as well), I maintain a framework that is about chest high - anywhere between 3-4'. This will result in a shrub that reaches about 8' tall by the end of the season but is densely clothed in foliage all over. No legginess :-)

    Bookmark   December 4, 2009 at 11:41AM
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whaas_5a(5A SE WI)

I see alot of people do what you've described above with Purple Sandcherries.

They look much fullier and overall more attractive during the growing season but it looks odd in the winter.

    Bookmark   December 4, 2009 at 12:15PM
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well I found part of the problem went outside because it is bugging me and broke off a couple of branches. I am thinking are they breaking because its winter? cold what do I know , well in a couple of the dry branches that break are a bunch of carpenter ants. So my guess is they are camping out for the winter in my smoke tree atleast the short one, haven't checked the taller one. So does anyone agree I should cut cut it all down short now and hope for the best in spring? They must be in alot of branches, I broke off 4 and 3 had ants at the tips , an ant cavern. They are either dead or sleeping I have no clue what an ant does for the winter. But its very cold here right now. Might get warm next week, don't want the suckers to get out and travel to my brand new trees!

    Bookmark   December 4, 2009 at 12:53PM
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brandon7 TN_zone(7)

It's hard for me to tell what's happening in the pictures of the second (smaller) tree. It looks like the tree may have been pushed over, or may have lost a companion trunk at some time. In any event, given it's current condition and your description, I'd consider removal.

The ants are just eating the dead wood. They aren't hurting the tree, or, are at least not the primary cause of problems.

Let us know what you find with the first tree. If it has performed well and looks in good shape (structurally sound) after your inspection, come back and we can go from there. Pruning recommendations might be easier if you can label each main branch with numbers and a couple of points on each limb with letters (something like brian2412 did in a couple of recent threads). That will allow for easy point identification.

    Bookmark   December 4, 2009 at 3:19PM
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ok here goes the smaller tree wasn't pushed over but as you can see by the pictures the trunks and roots are exposed. This is probably because they are acting like maples in my yard and or we have that sandy soil that washes away.
Today we just took it down , should we cut more down? It appears dying in about 1/3 of the bush/tree.(PHOTO 1) This picture is how the roots look they are across in front of the small fence

(PHOTO2) tHIS is the larger tree I have numbered the branches the best I can.


(PHOTO 3) this is what the smaller tree looks like now we cut it way back today, it just was making me sick looking at it and all that rotten wood. Attracts the ants to the wood fence too.


(PHOTO 4) This picture below I made little yellow x's where I think I shoud cut back the large tree, atleast I think if anyone can tell me I am up for advice.


PHOTO 5 This is a picture of the trees outside of the fence, see the old damage or die back.

    Bookmark   December 5, 2009 at 2:03AM
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If that big smoke tree on the outside of that fence WERE MINE, the one right next to the telephone pole, growing all up in those wires, I would cut it down to the ground and spray round up on it.
Plant something inside the fence in the spring that won't get that tall. What about a nice medium size evergreen?
It would look nice there.
Or a Rose of Sharon that would flower in the summer?

I just have to say this, when you asked this question, I gave you advice on pruning down a smoke bush because I HAVE DONE IT PERSONALLY with my own for MANY years.
I was giving you personal experience.
You can take it or leave it in regards to your smoke trees, but if I had asked a question and people who had never had a smoke bush or tree, or never coppiced one gave me advise and IT WAS WRONG, I would be upset.
Just had to get that off my chest.
Plant something else, time for a change next spring.
Good Luck to you! :)

    Bookmark   December 7, 2009 at 12:55AM
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brandon7 TN_zone(7)

Given the location of the tree (under the utility lines) and it's current condition (dead wood, leaning growth, nearness to the fence, and lack of sufficient pruning and training up until now), I could agree with butterfly4u's last recommendation. I've grown a number of these, both at my home and at my arboretum. I've also pruned and cared for them for clients. Thankfully I haven't had to deal with one in quite this shape before. Some of mine have succumbed to Verticillium wilt. From my experience, this genus seems somewhat more disease prone than many other alternatives.

If you do want to keep this tree, there are at least three options. One is to coppice the tree. I guess that was butterfly4u's first recommendation, although I'm not positive about that. That option was already discussed above.

Another option would be to stool the tree and select one or more shoots (originating from below the root collar) as the new trunk or trunks (depending on whether you preferred a more tree or bush form). This would be done in late winter/very early spring and would be done by cutting the entire tree down to within about an inch of the ground. As with coppicing, this would produce long, lanky growth. In this case, that growth would be desirable because it would form your new trunks. Assuming the tree was healthy, new sprouts should shoot up quickly. Attention to excess shoot removal and training would be required for a few years.

The third option, to keep the tree, would be gradual pruning and training. If you decided to go with this method, I'd start by properly removing the stubs in the lower part of the tree. These should be cut to just outside the branch bark ridges and collars. I would consider removing "E" completely to reduce the leaning look of the tree. Branch "D" could be reduced back to just over position "2" on "E". This would also reduce the leaning effect. Be sure to perform proper reduction cuts here, as shown in the link below. There may be no prefect solution for the branches on scaffold "A". A few heading cuts (usually not recommendable) may be necessary to bring the canopy down away from the utility lines. Careful and detailed maintenance (removing excess shoots and followup pruning) for a few years following this pruning might lead to a satisfactory result. As with routine coppicing, this will lead to lanky growth. It would also produce wounds that won't be covered over for a long time (one of the main problems with heading cuts). Since this is not a large tree, that would pose a significant danger if a major limb failed, heading branches on "A" back may be acceptable.

Of all of these options, I'd personally go with either butterfly4u's last recommendation or stooling, depending on how much I liked the tree and how much time I was willing to spend on it in the next few years.

Here is a link that might be useful: Proper Reduction Cut

    Bookmark   December 7, 2009 at 10:33AM
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