The Katsura Tree
The warm September weather washing over the garden has brought out an elegant, but modest beauty in our garden – the Katsura tree (Cercidiphyllum japonicum). You may first notice it as the smell of burnt sugar permeates the air, seemingly from nowhere. Look closer, though, and you will find a small multi-stemmed tree with heart shaped leaves, that are in the process of changing into autumn colours. It is this ageing process that creates the lovely smell, as the yellowing leaves give off maltol molecules, the very same released when you burn sugar to make caramel.
The Katsura tree comes from deciduous forests in Japan and China. It prefers constantly moist soil and a sheltered, sunny spot, as drought can make the leaves drop prematurely and frost can blacken young shoots in spring. Here at Gravetye it grows on clay soil, with its roots deeply anchored into the hillside to draw on the excess moisture permeating down the hill from the irrigation on the bowling green. The species would suit any small town garden and flaunts an early flush of bronze leaves in April, before most deciduous trees come into leaf. The leaves later turn green for summer and though some specimens produce warm autumn colours, we have usually found that ours go yellow as the season wanes. This gem is worth growing for the amazing scent alone, if not for the right to boast that we grow a tree used to make boards for the 5,500 years old Chinese strategy board game ‘Go’.
So if you find yourself in the Spring Garden this September, on a warm still day, look out for that moment of wonder as the scent of burnt sugar draws you in and makes your world that little more magical.