The Sweet Smell of the Katsura Tree | Home & Garden
BUFFALO - July 27, 2011- Yesterday, my colleague and I were canvassing Buffalo in search of local history. While ambling through the Buffalo and Erie County Naval and Military Park, I recognized a very familiar sugary scent.
“Do you smell that?” I asked.
“I do!” she exclaimed, “It smells like cotton candy! Where is it?”
When I pointed to a tree, she met me with a quizzical look.
“The tree?”, she said.
“Yes, the tree.” I crushed a few of the dried leaves in my hand and voila! The heavenly aroma of cotton candy!
“What’s the name?! I have to have one of these!”
The scent is a tell-tale sign of one of my favorite trees- Cercidiphyllum japonicum- the Katsura Tree. In the fall, when the leaves turn yellow and drop to the ground, they release a sugary aroma that has the unmistakable scent of cotton candy. Some liken it caramel or even brown sugar. Whatever the case, it sure smells sweet!
The tree is in the family cercidiphyllaceae, genus cercidiphyllum and the species japonicum.
Its name comes from the Latin word cercis, the name given to the Redbud tree, and phyllon which in Greek refers to leaf. Loosely translated, Cercidiphyllum means “leaf like a redbud”. Though much smaller, it does bear a resemblance to the leaf of our native Redbud tree.
The Katsura Tree has been around for a very long time. Fossil records date its existence to 1.8 million years. It even grew across North America and Europe until it vanished from those areas during the Pleistocene Era. Katsura was introduced in 1865 by Thomas Hogg, who sent seeds from Japan to his brother’s nursery in New York.
The first time I was exposed to the Katsura was in an Amherst nursery yard in October. While walking through the yard, I was unexpectedly struck with the pleasant scent of cotton candy. Circling, sniffing, and observing, I discovered that the aroma originated at a beautifully shaped tree with magnificent apricot-yellow foliage. I enquired as to the species- Katsura came the answer.
I had to have one.
Next spring I purchased one from a local tree and shrub nursery, and planted it near the street corner in the front yard of my Medina home. That was five years ago and the tree is doing beautifully. As it continues to mature, it will no doubt be a favorite of passersby in the fall! Folks will stroll by and wonder as I did, “Where’s the cotton candy?” Kids will love it!
The average Katsura is a large tree growing from 40 to 60 feet tall, and can spread from 25 to 50 feet wide, depending on conditions. It is pyramidal when young young, but rounded with age. USDA hardiness is zone 4-8. The growth rate is medium at 12 to 18 inches a year, but will tend to slow with age.
My Katsura Tree grows about 18 to 24 inches annually. I planted a 2 inch caliper tree five years ago. Today the tree has a 5.25 inch caliper, and is approximately 10 feet wide and 18 feet tall. If planted on a good site with proper planting techniques, water, and a little fertilizer, anyone could expect similar results.
However, the Katsura Tree does require some special considerations and care. The Katsura does not tolerate long periods of dry soil. Regular deep watering during the hot, dry summer months will work miracles for this tree until it is firmly established in the landscape. While droughty conditions are not as much of an issue with age, a little water in the summer months is always a good idea!
It also does best in a location that is somewhat protected from harsh elements. My site is exposed to some occasional wind, and is located on a busy state route in the village. Nonetheless, it does very well. It receives full sun throughout the day.
Katsura trees are available in several different cultivars. ‘Pendula’ has pendulous or weeping branches and grows approximately 20 feet tall with a 10-foot spread. ‘Heronswood Globe’ is a dwarf variety growing to approximately 15 feet tall with a dense, rounded crown. ‘Red Fox’ grows about 30 feet tall and 16 feet wide, and has attractive deep purple foliage with green veins.
This is a beautiful tree in the landscape for many reasons. It offers a range of seasonal interest that is second to none. In spring, the leaves of the Katsura emerge a beautiful reddish purple. As the season progresses the delicate, heart-shaped leaves turn a handsome bluish green.
Fall is where the real show begins. The autumnal color is striking- a bright, rich yellow with orange and apricot tones that never disappoints (not to mention the agreeable scent). Stunning! The Katsura Tree also displays a shaggy, gray bark that provides nice winter interest.
All in all, the Katsura Tree is an outstanding ornamental shade tree that deserves to be planted more often. It is both an exceptional and unusual tree that is perfect for bold fall color. Fertilize in spring, prune in winter. And remember- do not suffocate the tree by piling mounds of mulch around the trunk!
Check your local nurseries where trees are available (some stock Katsura, but you may have to order one), and explore it further on the web. While it does require a small amount of tender loving care while young, you won’t regret adding it to your landscape.
Chris Busch is Chairman of the Medina Municipal Tree Board.
Medina, NY is a Tree City USA and a Tree City Growth Award community.