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It's time to trim the Cotinus!

  • It's time to trim the Cotinus!
  • It's time to trim the Cotinus!
  • It's time to trim the Cotinus!
  • It's time to trim the Cotinus!

I know it's a bit wild and windy out there this week, but it's time to think about annual pruning of Cotinus.

It's been so mild this winter that they will be budding before we know it, so to save them wasting energy, get out there now and cut them back hard.

Why so hard? If you cut them back to a framework, much as you do for climbing roses, or for spur-fruiting trees, you will be rewarded with much larger foliage, and it will be much closer to the ground, so everyone can benefit from seeing it. It also serves to keep the plant within reasonable bounds - if left uncut, they get bigger and leggier every year.

I've attached some photos: the first two are showing one of the Cotinus shrubs in my care: it's quite a large one, about six foot tall, and over the last 14 years I have been cutting it back every year, as though it were a fruit tree with fruiting spurs. You can see how all the very short cut stems make a “knobbly” end to each large, solid branch.

I also take this opportunity to remove any obviously dead twigs or small shoots, and to rake out all the dead leaves and other debris that get caught in amongst the stems.

The third photo could well be captioned “how to rejuvenate an overgrown, leggy Cotinus: year two” as it shows one horizontal branch that I cut back hard at this time last year, and have just cut again this year. You can see that in this case, there is the one “main” branch: this is the one that I chopped last year, making just one straight cut across and leaving a simple, bare stump. It produced six or seven good strong branches last summer, each of which was well over 6' long, and now I have cut them back to just 3” or so each. This time next year, I will cut back all new shoots on those 6-7 branches to just 1-2” and lo! and behold, there you have it, the start of “knobbles”.

(In case you are wondering, no, this is not the one and only branch of the Cotinus in question, it's the only one of which I have a photo!)

It is often said that if you cut back a Cotinus hard each year, in order to get better foliage, you won't get the flowers, and it's true that, generally speaking, the flowers only appear on older wood, but in my experience there are two answers to this, one is that you don't always get flowers on a cotinus anyway, it has to be a long hot summer: and secondly if you really want flowers, then only cut it back every second year.

And my fourth photo is a simply joyous one of a "Goth Bouquet", made of Cotinus coggygria 'Royal Purple' foliage and flowers: stunning, isn't it!

Comments (14)

  1. Grower

    Rachel the Gardener

    And I should have added a reminder that Cotinus leak a nasty, sticky sap from all the cut ends: don't get it on your clothing or you will never get it off!

  2. Grower

    Angie's Garden

    My Cotinus (I have 3) are still all relatively young plants and know that I will need to keep on top of pruning as they mature. Good advice and useful pictures which I can refer to in future Rachel.
    I do though admit to preferring them without the blooms. The only negative I have found growing them this far north (Edinburgh) is that they are extremely late coming into leaf.

  3. Grower

    Wendy Smith

    Great advice thank you! Sadly one of the main branches of my Cotinus died last summer. The whole plant is 5/6ft', dead branch is around 3" in diameter & cutting off this branch would lose at least a 1/3 of the bulk of the shrub, leaving it very misshapen :-( Should I just lob it off as low as possible? Will it grow back/produce other branches to fill the void...I'm hoping it will recover but I dont know what's killed it :-(

  4. Grower

    Rachel the Gardener

    Hi Wendy, oh dear! It's always annoying when a major branch dies off - but if you leave it, the dead area might spread backwards into the rest of the shrub, so it's better to be brave and cut it right off.

    As it's a thick one, use a pruning saw (remembering that they cut on the "pull", not the "push"!) and don't rush, let the saw do the work. If you can, cut it back to beyond the dead part. If it's dead right the way back to the main trunk, well, cut it off flush with the trunk.

    If it's dead, then you won't get any leaves on it this year, and it will spoil the shape of the shrub anyway, so be brave - you might well be surprised that by midsummer, new branches have grown to fill in the gap, and it won't look so mis-shapen.

    If the worst comes to the worst, and you really don't like the look of it, by midsummer you could lop off maybe another branch or two in order to get a better shape - but in my experience, they often look seriously unbalanced when bare like this, but in summer, the foliage clothes the gaps.

    I'd be interested to see photos of the shrub, do you have any? You can either post them here, or email them to me - click on the Message Member box under my name, at the top of the page up there (points upwards).

  5. Grower

    Wendy Smith

    Thanks so much Rachel. I'm going to be brave and saw it off tomorrow! I've got a before pruning and after picture (attached) but this was before the "rot" set in!

    • It's time to trim the Cotinus!
  6. Grower

    Wendy Smith

    Correction! That was a before/after picture following pruning and before bursting into life...but you probably figured that out :-)

  7. Grower

    Rachel the Gardener

    Fabulous, Wendy! I love this shrub, it's such a gorgeous dense colour!

    See how, in the summer picture, you have no sense at all of the skeleton of the shrub? This is what I meant by saying that if you prune off one big section - or if, in your case, it dies - then once the foliage grows, you won't see the gap: it grows as just one big bush of foliage. Very obliging! So be brave!!

    Oh, and I love the contrast of the Cosmos in front - you would have thought that pink and purple would shreik at each other, but they don't, do they?!

  8. Grower

    Wendy Smith

    So I did it out the saw and took the whole damaged branch off.....eek! (Its a bit tricky to see with the Laurel behind). Gave it a good prune all over just have to wait and see what happens!

    • It's time to trim the Cotinus!
  9. Grower

    Rachel the Gardener

    Hey, Wendy, well done! virtual high five

    And now I'm going to terrify you again - bearing in mind that I've only seen these photos, and haven't seen the actual plant, I would tentatively suggest that now you look again at that one low-angled branch growing out to the left, and think about whether you should lop that one off about a foot above the ground, just after the upright "sprout".

    It would make the remaining section more of a single unit, without one prong shooting off to the side: I'm guessing this was your concern, when you said that removing the dead part would leave it looking a bit unbalanced.

    On the other hand, it might be better to leave it for this year, take photos again in mid summer, and then next winter, you may decide to lose the sticky-out branch... or you may decide that you don't mind it at all! As I've said, they do "fill out" with foliage.

    You might be reassured by this photo of a Cotinus in my care - a rather old one, with any number of sticky-out branches, some very low, some parallel to the ground: here, it is just starting to leaf up in May, and I can assure you that every year, by mid summer it's just one big mass of foliage, and you can't see the lop-sided skeleton of it at all!

    • It's time to trim the Cotinus!
  10. Grower

    Wendy Smith

    Thank you again Rachel.....that picture is really encouraging! I think I'm going to leave it and see a) if the damage has spread or hopefully been cut off and b) what shape it ends up! Quite exciting in that lovely gardeny/mother nature way :-)
    I'll pop some more pics on down the line....thank you again for your help :-)

    The sun is shining so time to get some stuff our of the greenhouse and sow some new ones! Have a lovely day :-)

  11. Grower

    Rachel the Gardener

    You too, Wendy!

    Actually, I was rained on twice this afternoon....

  12. Grower

    Wendy Smith

    Oh noooo, its been lovely and sunny here (down in Kent) but blimmin freezing this morning! I've hard pruned 2 Spiraea Japonica today.. I think I have the bug!

  13. Grower

    Jonathan Jones

    I have a cotinus Grace. I cut it back to the framework early spring with the intent of getting good foliage. It responded vigorously with a lot of what has become very leggy growth. As a result it is not a good shape, sprawling about. Do you know how I can avoid this next year? Does it need a 2nd prune later in the year?
    Thanks, JJ

  14. Grower

    Rachel the Gardener

    Hi Jonathan,

    We've been having a discussion about Cotinus Grace on another post, here which might be of interest to you - it does seem to be the case that Grace is a bit on the lax side, and does tend to put out a lot of very leggy growth.

    You could try pruning it hard again next spring, then when it starts to re-grow, pinch out the tips of the new shoots to encourage them to get thicker and bushier, rather than getting longer and longer.

    No guarantees, but it's worth a try!

    Do take photos throughout the process, then you can put up a post this time next year to show us all if it worked!!

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