The Katsura Tree – Beautiful, Fragrant, And Little Known

The Katsura tree, Cercidiphyllum japonicum, is a lovely flowering tree, native to Japan and China. It features heart-shaped leaves, which at first glance somewhat resemble the leaves of the Redbud tree. The Katsura tree takes on a pyramidal shape when young, but as it matures its shape become less uniform, though it remains attractive. While not particularly fast growing, the Katsura is an excellent shade tree. It may take 20 years to reach a height of 20 feet, but will often attain a height of between 40 feet and 60 feet. The leaves of this deciduous tree are a reddish purple in the spring, green during the summer months, and take on an apricot or yellow color in the autumn. It sometimes grows with a single trunk, but more often it has multiple trunks. A tree having multiple trunks is usually considered to be a stronger tree once it is fully grown. Because of its appearance, its low maintenance requirements, and its resistance to pests and diseases, the Katsura is often mentioned in top-10 listings of recommended trees for landscaping.

Smells Like Cotton Candy

While the Katsura tree is a flowering tree, the individual flowers are not particularly showy. The tree is better known for the delightful spicy fragrance it takes on towards the end of its blooming cycle in the late fall. Some liken the fragrance to a spice; others relate it to the smell of caramel or cotton candy. It is a very popular tree in Japan. Curiously, since Katsura is the Japanese word for tree, one might therefore expect this tree to have a central place in the typical Japanese garden. This may indeed be the case in some gardens, but in the larger and better known formal gardens in Japan the Katsura is scarce or altogether absent. Pine trees, bamboos, and Japanese maples are usually the trees of choice. One reason is that trees in formal Japanese gardens are often pruned with the intent of making them look older, or for the purpose of suggesting motion. The Katsura requires pruning, but primarily because of the weakness of the wood. Pruning is done to prevent limb breakage, and not with an intent of creating an art form, as is the case with the pine and Japanese maple.

The tree is grown throughout the United States and southern Canada, although they can be found in places like Georgia and California. It tends to do best in USDA Zones 4 through 9. It tolerates subfreezing temperatures fairly well, although a young sapling may not always survive a first or second winter if the weather is particularly harsh.

The Tree Can Be Difficult To Establish

The tree prefers a sunny location, although in the Southern states it may do best when started in an area which receives at least partial shade during the hottest days. If you look at comments by Katsura tree owners, you'll see mostly positive remarks, as most people who have these trees simply fall in live with them. Where there are negative comments, it usually has to do with getting the trees initially established, which sometimes can be difficult. Some trees will not survive a first year, but more often the tree will not do much for two or three years. Then, as the owner is about to give up on it, it will suddenly take off. Most of the time the tree will do well from the start if transplanted properly. It should be noted that once a Katsura becomes established, it does not take kindly to being transplanted.

Shallow Roots Are The Main Concern

The trees need to be well-watered, especially when they are young, as they have a shallow root system. Older trees, as noted previously, require less maintenance. The Katsura is drought tolerant up to a point, but if dry conditions persist it may suddenly drop all of its leaves. They will return when wet weather returns, but drought conditions will stress the tree, and it may not be able to withstand several drought cycles. Young trees also need to be wrapped to protect them from sunburn, as the bark is quite thin. Wrapping us not required once the tree is established and has begun to grow.

When deciding where to locate one of these trees the shallow root system needs to be taken into account, as the tree will sometimes form surface roots, which can make lawn mowing a problem. There are several varieties of Katsura available, including at least two very attractive weeping varieties. There is also a small variety that grows more like a shrub. Since this variety grows to around 20 feet, it cannot be classified as a dwarf, but would be a good choice for a smaller yard.

This tree has been available for many years, and larger well-established specimens will be found near many public buildings and on college campuses. It is not still not particularly well known to the average gardener. This is somewhat of a shame, as it makes a fine street tree, and is a wonderful tree to have in a larger yard or in a small park-like setting.