PLANT OF THE WEEK #51: Cercidiphyllum japonicum

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?


  1. Yes! In the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh, as a lucky RHS student there a few years ago. What a perfume. Along with magnificent Davidia involucrata and Pyrus salicifolia, things to dream on.

    1. So great to hear this. I love to think of us all sharing an experience like this, all on our own, in solitary joy. Things to dream on indeed

  2. Hi Michael! I enjoyed this newsletter more than most. Your writing on cercidiphyllum japonicum is brilliant and, not for the first time, I place you right up there with the very best of British garden writers of the last 100+ years. Reading you is the only time I really regret my days of ‘intense gardening’ on Sequoia are over. I also shared your link to Tieve Tara with the Van Heerdens who now own Sequoia – the similarities are often amazing. I include a link to the current site – not certain if your site will accept links: Keep well, keep at it! Regards Jack

    1. Hey Jack, I can’t tell you how good it is to hear that the reading of this makes you regret that your days of intense gardening are over. Obviously I’m sad that those days are over, but I’d want nothing more from my writing than to stoke a craving to get back in contact with the soil and the seasons. Clearly that’s something you’ve never lost.

  3. I agree this use of botanical language play is sometimes just too pointed…handy when a horticultural student but often lacking the intrigue of a common name.
    I love the name Katsura.
    Spring here and my teenaged tree, at about 25-30’, planted 18 yrs ago, is just leafing up. Unlike the lime of young growth back home with you, over here they are a blur of bronze just now.
    I’d have thought it would do well in Woodend with your lower average temp than most of Victoria. I grow it here on granitic, very free draining soils. Drought is a real issue in the short summer months and as we don’t have town water. It has never been given extra other than the year planted. Of course the average rainfall here is relatively high and the summer temperatures not near so. Darn.
    Wow, that alluring autumnal scent! Not to be readily found by standing amongst the leaves always but more often on the breeze at a little distance. That’s the joy. You may not yet have the tree in your sight…and mmmm, there it is. Inhale.!

    1. We’re way too dry here, Annmaree. We’d be alright, perhaps, if we had endless water, but we have absolutely none. And even then, it would be marginal. You’ve got to be on Mount Macedon, or in The Dandenongs, or the Southern Highlands, or Blue Mountains. Anywhere else, forget it. And it’s one of those trees that has to look lush and well loved. I’ve seen a few pinched, struggling ones in my time, and they’re just not worth having

  4. You have convinced me! Just ordered one . It sounds divine.

    1. Ten (or perhaps nine, keeping it odd) would have been better, but glad to have persuaded you!

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