Katsura, the tree that produces a sweet-smelling fragrance

Katsura is an amazing and resilient grower. It will set your garden ablaze in fall with its red-orange hues!

Katsura Key facts

NameCercidiphyllum japonicum
FamilyCercidiphyllaceae
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.

Planting Katsura

The katsura tree isn’t a demanding tree. The only thing katsura requires is constant soil moisture.

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

Watering

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 replenish it 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:

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.

Spring katsura tree branch with soft green leaves.

Propagating a katsura plant

All the usual propagation techniques will be quite successful with Katsura: seed propagation, layering (even air-layering), and cuttings.

Katsura is a species where male and female trees are different.

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.

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!

Katsura tree buds unfurling with old pods

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!

Read also


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