Cercidiphyllum japonicum

Weak at the knees for Katsura trees

Autumn is possibly the king of seasons. All throughout the year the garden steadily builds in colour, texture and form before erupting in a final flourish before the desolation of winter. “Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower”, a fitting remark from Albert Camus, the French philosopher. Autumn really is a time when all the trees of the garden fight for attention.

One tree however has a trick up its sleeve, a trump card if you will. A walk round any garden or arboretum is a special experience at any time of year. But those that venture out on a dewey autumnal morning may be greeted with an uplifting treat. Drifting through the trees or wafting on the breeze is a smell that will take them back to their childhood. A smell of fairgrounds and bonfire night; a smell that stops you in your tracks and encourages you to breathe in a lung full of happiness – the smell of the Katsura or Candyfloss tree.

Katsura tree
Katsura tree at RHS Garden Wisley. Image: Lawrence Wright

The Katsura tree (Cercidiphyllum japonicum) known to many as the Candyfloss or Burnt Sugar tree is a beautiful spreading tree that fills the air with is delightful fragrance in autumn as its leaves begin to take on fiery autumn shades. It is the leaves themselves that produce this mouth-watering fragrance. Picking a leaf and giving it a sniff is bitterly disappointing, it’s decidedly plant-y. Take a step back though and you’ll find yourself enveloped in a cloud of caramelised sugar. Most often you smell this wonderful tree before you see it; it then becomes a game to see who can spot it first.

Wisley moments

Working and training at RHS Garden Wisley has many privileges; one is being able to work under the branches of the UK Champion Katsura tree. It’s hard to describe the excitement of waiting for the leaves to change colour and exude their hypnotic fragrance. Wisley is peppered with many smaller Katsura trees so you can be sure to never be far from their uplifting fragrance.

Katsura tree
The US Champion Katsura tree at Morris Arboretum. Image: Lawrence Wright

In May 2015, I along with a group of fellow Wisley trainees spent two weeks visiting gardens on the East Coast of America. One of the gardens that we visited, Morris Arboretum is home to the US Champion Katsura Tree and boy it’s a mammoth! You can only imagine how powerfully fragranced this mighty old tree could be. Katsura trees themselves are beautiful at any time of year. The heart shaped foliage is often bronzed as it emerges in spring and quickly changes to soft green, casting a gentle shade. Although autumn is when this tree really earns its keep, the smaller cultivars mean that there really is a Katsura tree for any sized plot.

Why not grow an autumnal bouquet and plant a Katsura tree in your garden so every autumn you can be transported back to that child again at the fair?

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