En EspaŅol

Q. Who is Mr. Smarty Plants?

A: There are those who suspect Wildflower Center volunteers are the culpable and capable culprits. Yet, others think staff members play some, albeit small, role. You can torture us with your plant questions, but we will never reveal the Green Guru's secret identity.

Help us grow by giving to the Plant Database Fund or by becoming a member

Did you know you can access the Native Plant Information Network with your web-enabled smartphone?


Ask Mr. Smarty Plants

Ask Mr. Smarty Plants is a free service provided by the staff and volunteers at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

Search Smarty Plants
See a list of all Smarty Plants questions
Can't find the answer in our existing FAQs, submit a question to Mr. Smarty Plants.
Need help with plant identification, visit the plant identification page.
rate this answer
Not Yet Rated

Monday - June 28, 2010

From: California City, CA
Region: California
Topic: Non-Natives, Septic Systems, Grasses or Grass-like
Title: Non-native smoketree for California City, CA
Answered by: Barbara Medford


I was wondering if you could tell me if it would be a good or bad idea to plant a Smoke Tree (most likely European) in the vicinity of a septic tank. We are looking for something which will provide a moderate amount of privacy, since we live in the middle of the desert, and have very few neighbors. We are also considering Cordylines as an scattered around the smoke tree. Any help that you would be able to provide would be greatly appreciated. Thanks in advance. Ian Kelly


Sadly, you have presented Mr. Smarty Plants with several ideas he considers bad. First, you should never plant a woody plant, like a tree or shrub, over a septic system. Those woody roots underground are larger than the tree visible aboveground, and relentless in their progress. They can lift sidewalks, crack foundations and certainly play havoc with a septic system. Our recommendation for use over septic systems is always grasses native to the area. Their long fibrous roots will hold the soil, draw up some of the moisture in the septic lines, but will not interfere with them.

Our second version of a bad idea is to plant the European smoke tree, Cotinus coggyria, (from Floridata) which is native to southern Europe, central Asia and the Himalayas.  The Lady Bird Johnson Willdflower Center is dedicated to the growth, protection and propagation of plants native not only to North America, but to the area in which that plant is being grown. 

And, in spite of it being native to North America, we don't think it's a good idea to try to plant  Cotinus obovatus (American smoketree), in your location in the Fremont Valley of the Mojave Desert. Although both the native and non-native smoketrees are listed as being viable in USDA Hardiness Zones 5 to 8, and your area on the eastern border of Kern County is Zones 8a to 9b, it still is a long way from the nearest area where either of them is believed to grow. A few counties in Central Texas are shown on the USDA Plant Profile as having the American smoketree growing, that is as far west as they go. The European smoke tree grows in the East and north up into Canada.  

Both of these trees are relatively rare in trade and difficult to transplant. Since you should not plant it over your septic system anyway, why waste your time and effort over a tree that will probably not survive there?

From our Native Plant Image Gallery:

Cotinus obovatus

Cotinus obovatus

Cotinus obovatus

Cotinus obovatus



More Non-Natives Questions

Non-native red-tip photinias dying in San Antonio
August 20, 2009 - A 17 year old Red tip Photinia in a hedge shows signs of dying. The main stalks are quite large and offshoots from two of the stalks have brittle, drooping leaves. The center of the plant looks norm...
view the full question and answer

Problems with yellow lantana in Smoaks SC
June 05, 2010 - My yellow lantanas are about five years old - big and beautiful, but beginning last year, the blooms are small and part of the tiny petals are brown or black. Can you tell me what I can do about this ...
view the full question and answer

Probably non-native crapemyrtle trees damaged by hurricane
January 15, 2009 - I have 5 crape myrtle trees. I live in Galveston, Tx and when Hurricane Ike came through in September the salt water I think killed them. They have not come back since then and are brown with no leave...
view the full question and answer

Non-native invasive Siebold viburnum from Isleboro ME
June 17, 2012 - I was given several small Siebold Viburnum for planting on my Maine property. Even though it is often for sale in nurseries, I'm aware it is listed as invasive in several eastern states. Shouldn't I...
view the full question and answer

Is non-native Tillandsia air plant poisonous to cats?
June 07, 2010 - Are Tillandsia/air plants poisonous to cats? Please help!
view the full question and answer

Support the Wildflower Center by Donating Online or Becoming a Member today.
© 2015 Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center