Katsura is an amazing and resilient tree. It will set your garden ablaze in fall with its red-orange hues!
Katsura Key facts
Name – Cercidiphyllum japonicum
Family – Cercidiphyllaceae
Type – average-sized tree
Height – 15 to 50 feet (5 to 15 m)
In the Wild – 100 feet (45 m) if well watered
Exposure – full & part sun
Soil – rich
Foliage – deciduous
Flowering – not remarkable, March-April
Hardiness – very hardy (-30°F or -35°C)
Weakness – not drought-resistant
The katsura tree is quickly becoming a trendy addition to many gardens across the planet. Its history, however, hints at a long-lasting heritage. Learn how to care for it in a few simple steps.
The katsura tree isn’t a demanding tree. The only thing katsura requires is constant soil moisture.
- Read our page on how to plant katsura
When and how to plant Katsura
Fall is the best season, followed by spring.
- Avoid days of freezing and of searing heat.
Rich soil will guarantee that the planting is successful.
To make sure the soil stays cool and moist, again, mulch is the way to go.
Exposure and soil for growing a Katsura tree
All soil types will fit the needs of the katsura tree. You can increase fall colors in the following manner:
- acidic soil will trigger brighter colors than alkaline or neutral soil
- full sun in cooler climates, and part sun in warm, hot climates, will also contribute to lively fall colors.
These katsura planting guidelines go into more detail on the specific steps related to landscaping, planting and transplanting katsura.
Proper Katsura care
On top of abundant watering upon planting, it’s important to water during droughts, even short ones.
- When stressed by lack of water, the katsura tree will simply drop all its leaves within a short time.
- It enters a kind of dormant state that will cease as soon as the plant is watered.
- This is a rather uncommon coping technique. It has the advantage of preserving wood, roots and branches from dying off altogether.
Note that if all the leaves have dropped from your Katsura in summer, it doesn’t mean your plant has died! Simply wait for the next rain or water to see the plant revive. The botanical term for this is “leaf abscission“.
Protect against this happening by covering the soil with thick mulch to keep water in. In soil that is excessively wet, though refrain from too mulch that might make the plant suffocate and drown (more information about this in our page about how to plant katsura).
- Eventually, use hydrogel in your garden around the tree to store rainwater right where it’s needed – near the roots!
- Remember that these crystals usually have a five-year lifecycle. You might need to renew them after five or six years.
Fertilizing a Katsura tree
Rich soil is what Katsura trees love most. They’ll thrive when planted with lots of compost and mulch.
After the planting, you can keep the soil both rich and moist with mulch, as mentioned above. However, there are other tricks you can use to keep the soil rich and perfect for your katsura:
- Make your own weed-based fertilizer
- A great garden use for coffee grounds – fertilizer that is ideal for acidic-soil-loving trees such as katsura
- When topdressing your lawn, spread some mix under the tree, too.
- As with a healthy vegetable patch, green manure is ideal. No need to rototill it under since this might damage roots. Indeed, katsura roots are very near the surface. Simply mow the greenery down and let it break down naturally.
There isn’t any particular nutrient that this tree requires more than another. Simply use a fertilizer that is balanced if you must purchase one in a store.
Propagating a katsura plant
- More on how to propagate katsura trees
Katsura is a species where male and female trees are different. To have viable seeds, you’ll need at least one of each.
- Learn how to tell the difference between male and female katsura
Pruning and shaping katsura
Usually, there’s no need to prune the katsura tree.
- It grows quickly at the beginning, sometimes reaching two feet tall within the first year!
- different types of katsura have different growth rates, though. Dwarf varieties are slower-growing.
Natural bearing of the Katsura tree
It grows into a lush, cone-like shape that tends to round off with age.
When it has space, katsura sends branches out to the side that are almost horizontal. These can grow very large and impressive.
One particular habit the tree has is that it tends to sprout suckers from the lower portions of the trunk. When left to grow, these turn into secondary trunks. It usually looks very nice, giving the tree a thick, full figure.
- If you wish your tree to look “tree-like”, i.e. with a single trunk, you’ll have to prune these as soon as you notice them.
- Doing this once a year is fine, along with a yearly check for dead branches.
- Removing dead portions keeps the tree nicer to look at and reduces risks of accident due to falling branches.
When to prune a katsura tree
If you must prune to reduce the size of your tree, or balance its shape out, then it’s best to do this in spring.
Katsura tree pests and diseases
In both Europe and the Americas, there are no major pests or diseases for katsura.
- In Asia, the native habitat, it is known to host small root-damaging nematodes.
- Imports usually screen these out before transportation, though.
As with most plants (even oak and other trees), rich and humid weather may trigger powdery mildew on your katsura tree leaves.
- Simply water directly at ground level (trunk and along the drip line), without getting leaves wet.
- Read more about treating powdery mildew.
Deer aren’t interested in the katsura tree.
A few stranded caterpillars might start chewing on the leaves, though.
Katsura tree varieties
There are two main types of Katsura tree. These are different species that don’t cross-pollinate into hybrids.
The first and most common one is Cercidiphyllum japonicum. It grows very tall in time, sometimes passing 50 yards (45 meters).
More rare, but equally beautiful, is Cercidiphyllum magnificum. It never grows taller than 30 feet (10 meters). It’s also the variety most suited to training as a katsura tree bonsai.
- Discover the different katsura tree varieties and cultivars.
Trees that look like the Katsura tree
The botanical name of the katsura tree gives this one away! Cercidiphyllum, when broken down from the original language, means “leaves like those of Cercis”. And indeed, both share the signature round, heart-shaped leaves.
It’s quite easy to tell them apart, though.
- Cercidiphyllum has leaves that are opposite, meaning they’re in pairs.
- Cercis, commonly called redbud or Judas tree, has alternate leaves. One leaf to the right, then one to the left, and so on.
Cercidiphyllum, in time, will outgrow Cercis by far.
Learn more about the Katsura tree
Unusual colors in every season
Leaves are heart-shaped with roundish tips. They start out pale red, shift to bright green, lush green and truly turn into fire come fall with bright yellow, orange and red hues. What’s most surprising is that the leaves often turn pink!
- The colors are even more impressive when the tree grows in acidic soil.
In gardens, katsura tends to stay rather small, but when given time and space it can reach to 50 yards (45 meters) tall!
Katsura is a magnificent addition to every Japanese garden. Its appeal is wonderful in all seasons:
- bright green spring colors
- lush green shade in summer
- yellow and orange fire in fall
- silver-black seed pods in winter
Candy cane or Belgian waffle scent
The nickname for this tree is the “caramel tree”. It releases a wonderful scent in fall. It smells like caramelized sugar, cotton candy or that delicious smell wafting out of a Belgian waffle shop.
- In some places, the “Toffee Apple” nickname is used.
The scent is due to sugar-rich compounds in leaves breaking down in fall.
- Leaves transfer nutrients to the trunk and root system to prepare for winter, turning yellow in the process.
- Some of the compounds are degraded into a volatile glucose called maltol, which we smell.
Katsura, a name that has roots tracing far to the past
The name “katsura” comes from the Japanese city of Katsura. This neighborhood of Kyoto is known for a particular type of flower arrangements, the “Katsura Ko-ryu” school of ikebana, as well as a fabulous palace with beautiful gardens… in which katsura trees grow!
Lifecycle of the katsuratree
This tree usually starts off with rapid, dynamic growth in the first decade or two of its life.
The shape is very elegant, like a cone with a very pointed tip. It’s similar to the growth of a Ginkgo biloba at that age.
At age 20, it starts filling out. It gradually turns into a wide, shade-giving dome. Shape is close to that of the stone pine.
- It takes almost a human lifetime to reach its mature shape (half a century).
As time passes, most of the new growth is diverted to side shoots that sprout from the tree base. This gives the tree the bearing of a wide old oak tree, similar to those that grow in the magnificent plantations in the SouthEast United States.
It’s difficult to know for sure what the lifespan of the katsura tree is.
- A very old specimen was described in South America by the first Spanish emissaries. It is still alive today, making it a tree that is over 500 years old!
- Botanists and horticulturists only started spreading the plant in Europe and North America in the 18 hundreds. The oldest specimens in those regions are at most nearing 200 years of age.
- Given the few pests and strong resilience, it’s probable that the tree can live to over 1,000 years of age. Perhaps even double that!
Smart tip about katsura
Make sure to plant this tree in a portion of the garden that you tend to pass by. Can’t let that delicious smell come and go unnoticed!
Credits for images shared to Nature & Garden (all edits by Gaspard Lorthiois):
Katsura tree in autumn by Steve Law under © CC BY-SA 2.0
Springtime katsura tree by harum.koh under © CC BY-SA 2.0
Buds of a female katsura tree by Danny Schissler for the Plant Image Library under © CC BY-SA 2.0