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Tough Love


The day we brought her home from the nursery, we were the proudest parents on the block. We hadn’t always wanted one. In fact, the thought hadn’t really crossed our minds until we noticed how happy Kathleen’s brother and sister-in-law were with theirs. Slowly, irrevocably, the notion crept into our heads that perhaps it was time to make a commitment.

Still, I was the one who held back. Was I ready for this kind of a change? Could I handle the responsibility? What if I was found wanting?

As we sat in the yard and looked at her, tiny and green and purple, we thought about the years to come when we would share spring days and summer evenings and even snow-covered afternoons behind our house. I carried with me a mental snapshot of the three of us enjoying ourselves in the yard. I even had the perfect spot picked out for her, where she would always stand.

We needed a name. At the nursery they had called her Cotinus coggygria ‘Atropurpurea’. That seemed, I don’t know, ostentatious somehow. She would eventually grow into that name but for now we wanted something a little friendlier. “Coty?” I expected to see Kathy Lee in my yard. “Coggy?” Is that pronounced with a long ‘O’ or short, hard ‘G’ or soft? “Atro?” Visions of George Jetson danced in my head. “Purpy?” Yeesh. Since she was also known as a “Smoke Bush,” how about “Smokey?” Yeah, then give her a ranger’s cap and a shovel.

Some cultivars of Cotinus had names like “Royal Purple” or “Velvet Cloak.” But we loved our Continus. Refusing to stand on ceremony, we called her simply “The Smoke Bush.”

We fed and watered and loved her and she returned our love three-fold. She grew like a…well, like a proverbial weed. I can remember her first late-winter trim. She never fussed. In fact, she rewarded us with even more spectacular growth that spring. We would stand together in the window that looked out upon the backyard and watch her dance in the wind, purple leaves laughing and singing. True, because we needed to prune her rampant growth, there was little inflorescence those first couple of years. However, we knew that we would enjoy an abundance of inflorescence in her adolescence.

When you bring your babies home from the nursery, there should be a warning about heartaches. Right there on the 2-gallon container: “Warning. Just like the Chicago Cubs, this plant will eventually break your heart.”

You try to protect your babies. You water and mulch and fertilize and prune and put them in a safe location. We never let our Smoke Bush hang out on the street corner with bad influences like the common Rose of Sharons or the once-hybrid-and-now-reverted-to-Dr. Huey-stock Roses or–God forbid–Arborvitae. Yet, though we could keep her away from suspect companions, we couldn’t keep all evil away from her.

This summer, she started to droop at the end of her branches.

I began to scour the Internet for clues. Too much moisture? Not enough? What about nutrients? Insects? Pathogens? It began to look more and more as if she had fallen in with a terrible companion. Good God, was it me? Did I use unclean pruners? Did I kill my baby?

I took a sample to a well-respected horticulturist at a popular nursery. He took one look at the strangely stained sapwood, tsk-tsked a couple of times and said, “Classic case of verticillium wilt. Classic.” Was that supposed to make me feel better? A colleague of his asked if she could have the samples to show her customers. As if to say, “See? If you’re a bad, bad parent, your children will end up like this, too.”

At this point, all of my horticultural friends began crawling out of the, er, sapwood, saying things like, “Oh, my, yes. Smoke bushes are very susceptible to verticillium wilt.” “I know a landscaper who says that smoke bushes planted in the city always get verticillium wilt.” Where were these people when I was entering into my decidedly one-sided Faustian bargain?

As we watched the slow but inevitable decline of our smoke bush, I knew what I had to do to save all of us.
I cut her off at the ankles and dug up the rest. Tough love, baby.

A volunteer amaranthus has popped up where the smoke bush once stood, but it’s not the same.

It’s only lately that I discovered that Cotinus is pronounced KO-tin-us and not co-TIE-nus.

Geez, I didn’t even get that right.

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