Caramel tree, delicious eye candy for the garden

Yellow leaves of the caramel tree

Visitors often overlook the caramel tree because its blooming is discrete and fragrance-less. The tree’s silhouette isn’t particularly remarkable, but there is one thing that will make you remember it for ever: the smell of its leaves!

A true blast from the past with its cotton-candy smell, this smallish but graceful tree releases this caramel-like taste when leaves begin to turn red in fall.

Key Caramel tree facts

NameCercidiphyllum japonicum
Type – tree

Height – 25 to 36 feet (8 to 12 m)
Exposure – intense full sun, to veiled light
Sol – cool, very acidic to neutral

Foliage – deciduous
Flowering – in April

Planting the caramel tree

The caramel tree is ideally planted in fall, but can also be planted in spring if it is purchased in a container. Apart from fall and spring, avoid days where there is either strong heat, or below freezing temperatures. It is hardy down to -4°F (-20°C).

  • Planting guide for caramel treeIt loves full sun exposure if the climate in your area is cool. However, if summer gets very hot, it’s better to shelter it with shade trees because it would suffer a lot in dry weather.
  • Extreme drought will lead to premature leaf drop, and soggy soil will make it vulnerable to disease. Give it rich, soft, deep, humus-rich and preferably not so chalky soil. It’ll survive alkaline soil, even if the pH creeps up to 8, but the colors of its leaves won’t be as beautiful.
  • Avoid planting on the Eastern side of your house, since the marked change in temperature on cold mornings will damage its buds.
  • Shelter it from cold and dry winds.
  • Water regularly during the first 2 years after planting.
  • To ensure proper settling in, follow our planting advice for this tree.


The caramel tree thrives best in rich soil. If the soil in your garden isn’t very rich, you can amend it and make it better.

Pruning and caring for the apple toffee tree

Maintenance is reduced, especially when the tree is well settled in.

  • To keep the soil around it fertile, though, you can add compost around the tree in fall.
  • At the end of spring, spread a thick layer of mulch or hay on the ground to keep it cool; on very hot days, such as heat waves, water the tree abundantly, and even spray the leaves with water.

Pruning the apple toffee tree

Orange caramel tree leavesThis tree naturally takes on a very harmonious shape, and pruning it is often unnecessary.

  • Simply remove dead or wounded branches – these will appear in time, as is the case for most trees.
  • Important to know: if you prefer for this tree to grow a single trunk, cut off any growth that springs out from the base of the tree. Typically, every year one or two shoots will appear from the base. The best time to remove these offshoots is just after leaf fall, in autumn.
  • Use the trimmings to prepare new saplings, it’s the most successful means of propagation.

All there is to know about the apple toffee or caramel tree

This deciduous tree will usually only reach 25 to 35 feet (8 to 12m) in our temperate climates, but in its native habitat, it easily reaches gigantic proportions: over 120 feet (40 m) tall, with a girth of nearly 15 feet across (4.5 meters). The botanical name, “Cercidiphyllum” is a reference to the heart-shaped leaves, which are similar to those of the Judas tree. The name for the Judas tree is Cercis in latin, phyllum being the word to designate “leaf”.

What makes this tree famous, though, is related to its common name: “apple toffee tree” or “caramel tree” – even the name “cotton candy tree” has appeared. Indeed, the most surprising aspect of this tree are the heady sweet scents that wafts out from its gold-colored leaves in fall. They’re nearly exactly the same smells as those of caramel or gingerbread! The intensity of the smell waxes and wanes, becoming particularly pungent when fog and mist arise.

The tree often naturally forms many trunks side-by-side. From these, horizontal branches stem outwards and tend to droop to the ground.

The flowering is insignificant. It appears in April, even before any leaves appear. Trees are either male or female, so you won’t have both types of flowers on the same tree. Fruits are kind of like pea pods, about 1 to 2 inches long (1.5 to 5 cm).

Dark purple caramel tree leavesAnother appealing aspect of this tree is the color of its foliage which starts out bright red in spring then turns green, before switching to yellow, pinkish orange and violet in October. There are actually a few cultivars that have deep purple leaves such as Cercidiphyllum japonicum ‘Rotfuchs’ (show here, with guttation drops around the edge of the leaves), others with weeping habits like the C. japonicum ‘Pendulum’, and still others with variegated foliage, of which the 12-15 foot tall ‘Chameleon’ is a good example (4-5m).

  • Note that in many garden stores, the caramel tree goes under the name “katsura“.

Landscaping with a caramel tree

Landscaping uses of the caramel treeMany who have this tree share that it seems happiest whenever a taller tree covers it in shade during the hotter periods of the day. Pair it with a Magnolia, a Liquidambar or a Liriodendron, since these three trees have the same needs. In coastal climates, however, it does well even when planted as a standalone.

To complete your landscaping around this tree, try planting Cornus kousa and florida and even a few Japanese maple trees nearby: it’ll be a competition as to which one has the most marvelous fire-colored leaves in fall!

Smart tip

Purchase your saplings rather on the tall side, from 2 to 5 feet tall (60 to 150 cm): the tend to settle in much easier than smaller ones.

Image credits (edits Gaspard Lorthiois):
CC BY 2.0: Esther Westerveld, Wendy Cutler
CC BY-SA 2.0: Danny Schissler for the Plant Image Library