Everyone loves a mystery, the saying goes. At the garden centre mysteries usually come in the form of plants, or more correctly, pieces of plants that customers need identified. Is it a weed or a valuable ornamental? Annual or perennial? What have I got growing in my garden?
Sometimes the mystery is in the name of the plant. The conversation often goes like this, “Do you have any fire bush.” “Do you mean smoke tree?” “No, I’m looking for a smoke bush.” “You must mean firethorn.” “No, I think it’s actually called the burning bush.” “Well, where’s there’s smoke there’s fire, right?”
We love common names at the garden centre! They present us with the best mysteries of all. In an effort to solve this particular mystery here’s a breakdown of what plants were being referred to in the above conversation.
The Burning Bush, sometimes called the Fire Bush, is Euonymus alatus. I wrote about this deciduous shrub a few years ago, and included a photo of the shrub growing in my own garden with its bright red fall foliage. In years when the colour really develops the shrub does indeed look like its on fire, particularly when the late afternoon sun is shining behind it. I’m almost tempted to walk up to it and wait for God to speak to me!
There is a tropical shrub known as the Fire Bush, Hamelia patens. You don’t see it marketed this far north but it is used as an annual bedding plant in the southern US states.
Smoke Tree refers to Tamarix, the tall quick-growing shrub that produces the feathery pink plumes in spring or summer, depending on the species. These have some ornamental value; they’re drought-tolerant, insect-free and attractive when they’re in bloom. There is some concern that Tamarix can spread aggressively by seed but I’ve yet to hear any reports from customers that it has done so in their gardens.
When customers ask for a Smoke Bush, we take them to Cotinus coggyria. The common name comes from the resemblance of the fluffy panicles of flower heads to puffs of smoke. Cotinus is a great plant if you have the space for them. The foliage of “Royal Purple” is a dark burgundy-red, while “Grace” has lighter red leaves that morph to a spectacular blend of red, orange and yellow in fall. In my garden “Grace” is spectacular this summer, covered with flowers.
Firethorn is Pyracantha, the evergreen shrub with thorns and small white blooms following by orange or red berries. You often see this shrub grown as an espalier against a wall or fence. I’m not sure where the fire reference in the common name comes from but grasp the stems and you’re certainly know where the –thorn originates!
So now you know why garden centre staff will smile and look away when asked whether we have (insert common name for plant commonly used to name many different plants here). Like I said, we love a mystery!

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