Yes, A Tree That Smells Of Cotton Candy

Cercidiphyllum leaf

If you have ever been up close and personal with a katsura tree (Cercidiphyllum japonicum) then you already knew what I was going to talk about by the title of today’s post. Yes, as the leaves are changing color in autumn, standing underneath a katsura tree, you get the aroma of cotton candy or caramelized sugar. That is not the only reason to grow Cercidiphyllum but it is one of the best. This tree is happiest in a bright location, preferably almost all day sun. Having a bright location allows the tree to become dense in its growth habit and truly enriches its fall color. I have always been told that katsura tree needs a damp yet well drained location until established. Otherwise, it will drop its leaves in late August or early September, especially if there has been a dry summer. I have observed this happen in the south and along the mid-Atlantic but I have to add an asterisk to this assumption. This is not true here in coastal Maine. We have several trees planted around the gardens here at CMBG and they are real aristocrats all summer and into fall. The fall color for our trees started this year in early October and is just wrapping up this week. I realize that this has been a remarkable autumn in New England but our trees are in what I would consider relatively dry locations. Maybe it is the cooler summer temperatures that they prefer. Regardless, these are some of the finest trees that you can grow.

Katsura fall

The leaves are round and spring green, the bark is slightly exfoliating, and the tree form is upright and slightly pyramidal. It is, in many respects, the perfect tree for the New England garden. Sure, it is not native and it does not have a showy flower, but with a great form and leaves that smell of cotton candy in the fall, more folks should be including it into their landscape. As for the cultural specifics, it is hardy from USDA zones 4 to 8 and will ultimately reach a mature landscape size of 40-60 feet in height. There are numerous cultivars available in commerce. We added ‘Tidal Wave’ (a weeping form) and ‘Rotfuchs’ (or ‘Red Fox’ a red leaved form) this spring to the garden. I am hoping to add ‘Heronswood Globe’ in the near future. It is a smaller, compact and rounded head form selected from the former Heronswood gardens of Dan Hinkley and Robert Jones in Washington state.

This winter, while shopping for plants, I will be looking for new and interesting selections of katsura tree. Are there some fantastic cultivars that you are growing that you think we should add?


Images: Oregon State, Thompson and Morgan


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rodney eason

Rodney Eason - Director of Horticulture and Plant Curator at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, father of 4, husband to a Renaissance woman. I spent the first part of my life in North Carolina, the middle in Pennsylvania, and now I am determined to become a Mainer  while keeping my southern drawl. I consider the rhetorical question, "you're not from around here, are you?" a compliment. I love great gardens, beautiful plants, and inspiring architecture. Because of this, I am on a lifelong quest to find a garden that artistically combines beautiful plants while being centered around an evocative building. For me, this would be Beatrix Farrand's Dumbarton Oaks, with the plants of Lotusland and Chanticleer, around Fay Jones' Thorncrown Chapel. My wife and I are now making our new home and garden in a 130 year old New England house with a farmer's porch near the Damariscotta River in coastal Maine. When our kids get into college, we want to hike the Appalachian Trail as a family over a summer break. My likes (in random order): the smell of fresh basil and rosemary, bold foliage, India Pale Ale, good running shoes, Top Gear, the smell of New England in the fall (it reminds me a bit of English Leather, which my grandfather wore), and the sound of our family laughing together around the dinner table. I dream of one day owning an old Toyota 4X4 pick-up and seeing the Avett Brothers in concert.
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