I must have raised a few eyebrows as I went around the nursery sniffing like a bloodhound. I just couldn’t figure it out. I knew I could smell cotton candy (UK translation – candy floss) but there were none to be seen, yet that sweet sugar and cinnamon fragrance was wafting all around me. In confusion I mentioned it to one of the nursery staff who laughed and pointed me to the towering tree above me – a katsura tree (Cercidiphyllum japonicum). Sure enough the richly colored, heart-shaped leaves that were falling like confetti all around me were the source of this wonderful fall fragrance.
That was about 16 years ago and I’ve been waiting for a garden to plant one in ever since, finally getting my wish last year. As my husband and I walked through the field to choose the perfect tree last fall I found myself dreaming of hot apple cider and pumpkin bread! Maybe this tree will prove a bad idea for the waist line.
Katsura trees are native to Asia but have become a popular tree in many other parts of the world where they can be afforded moisture retentive soil, full sun or very light shade, rich acidic soil and temperatures which fall in the range -30’F to 20’F (USDA zones 4-9)
How to use
In the garden they look perfect lining a driveway, as a specimen lawn tree or providing height in a large mixed border. Here in the Seattle area they are also a popular sidewalk tree where their roots do not cause the damage of older choices such as cherry trees and their pyramidal form allows easy passage of both vehicles and pedestrians (although in maturity they tend to assume a more spreading shape).
The typical katsura tree matures at over 40’ and 25’ wide, growing 12-18” per year but smaller gardens can take advantage of the newer introduction ‘Red Fox’. This has a tight columnar form clothed in deep burgundy leaves during spring and summer before transforming to shades of harvest gold in fall when they release their characteristic burnt sugar aroma. The bark is a shaggy brown.
‘Heronswood Globe’ is a dwarf, rounded form which grows to just 20’ x 20’ and has green foliage which turns shades of rose and apricot in autumn. This is a low growing tree, often with its branches just 2’ off the ground.
The weeping katsura is a beautiful tree with a dense crown and blue-green foliage which turns bright yellow in fall. It grows slowly to 20’ tall and 15’ wide
Year round interest
Although perhaps at it’s finest in fall, the katsura has plenty to contribute in other seasons too. Spring sees the emergence of reddish-purple leaves which slowly darken to an attractive blue-green. The winter silhouette is a welcome addition to the winter garden as is the handsome bark.
Wherever you plant them be sure it is somewhere that you can enjoy their fragrance – and watch your visitors try to identify the source of that wonderful spicy aroma!