Is it laziness or lack of originality that has botanists naming a plant for its likeness to another? I’m scarily like my older brother, but am so glad my mother didn’t take the easy route and name me (with Linnean adjustment) McCoy grahamoides. I want to be known by what’s unique to me, not for my resemblance to someone else.
And as much as I really like the foliage of Cercis (of which ‘Forest Pansy’ is probably the best known, superseding the previously better known Cercis siliquastrum – The Judas tree, that legend would have us believe Judas Iscariot hung himself on, having betrayed Jesus), the idea of adopting its likeness as the inspiration is seriously underselling the truly magical tree that was thus named Cercidiphyllum, which amounts to no more that ‘Cercis-leaf’.
Some trees have a poise and presence that lifts them way above the crowd, and Cerciciphyllum japonicum (uncommonly known by its common name, Katsura) is one of them. Its leaves are wonderfully broad and heart-shaped, almost orbicular, and are held with remarkably consistent spacing, elegantly away from the stems that bear them. The canopy is never overly dense, but is, from youth into advanced age, forever buoyant.
Starting the most lively lime in spring, the leaves thicken and darken a little, but retain a spring freshness until they start to colour in autumn. If Cercidophyllum needed a big moment, this is it. The leaves turn to various shades of soft peach and apricot, and upon falling, start to exude a plant scent like no other.
I’d read about this scent, and never smelt it, but stepping into an enclosed space in a garden in the US in October a few years back, was overwhelmed by the warm, treacly scent of just burning toffee. Without any conscious thought, I knew what I had to be sensing, and looked overhead for the evidence. I was standing on a square of lawn with a Cercidophyllum in each corner, with a carpet of decomposing leaves underfoot. If you visit Antique Perennials in late autumn you may get a privileged whiff, as they have a row of them in their wholesale area, and it carries on the air.
Unfortunately for most of us, this is a mountain tree, demanding cool conditions and deep, moist soils. But appreciation for plants should extend way beyond ownership. I will never own a Van Gogh, but that didn’t diminish my awe and admiration as I stood before the Irises at The Met.
Have you ever caught a whiff of the fallen foliage of Cercidiphyllum? Where were you?