Katsura – September 2013 Tree of the Month

by Ann Farnham, LLA

The September Tree of the Month, selected by the Ewing Environmental Commission, is the very lovely Katsura, Cercidophyllum japonicum. 

Native to China and Japan, the Katsura is hardy in the United States from USDA Zones 4 though 8. It grows at a medium to fast rate to 40 to 60 feet tall, but some specimens are known to have reached 100 feet or more. The spread varies from 20’ to 30’ but sometimes the spread may match the height. The shape is usually pyramidal in the early years but it becomes full, dense, and wide-spreading.

Katsuras are tolerant of many soils, from sandy to clay, and the pH, or acidity of the soil, does not adversely affect it although some experts feel that the fall color is more vivid if in acid soils. Katsuras need ample moisture (but a well-drained soil); if they are not watered during droughts they will drop many leaves. The root system is very shallow, with many roots even spreading to 6” above the ground. As the roots are so shallow and water-absorbing, it is difficult to establish grass or delicate groundcovers underneath this tree. The Katsura thrives in full sun and can tolerate partial shade. However, it does better if it does not receive strong wind; it can develop sun-scald in hot afternoon sun. Importantly, there are no pests or diseases to worry about.

The leaves are two to four inches wide and heart-shaped, reddish purple when very young and then become bluish green. When colors begin to change in the fall, and the leaves turn orange and scarlet and apricot, the tree emits a scent like cotton candy or caramel, especially noticeable when there is a breeze or dew. The flowers are inconspicuous, appearing in March to April before the leaves. The fruits are dry capsules and the bark is brown and slightly shaggy on older trees.

Katsuras have many uses. If they are single trunked, they can be used as street trees if the water supply is sufficient; multi-trunked trees are used as parking island trees, buffer trees for parking lots, on highway median strips, as ornamentals and specimen trees on golf courses and parks, and as lawn trees. They are difficult to transplant and should be acquired as container-grown trees or balled and burlapped.

The wood is light and traditionally used for furniture and interior woodwork.

The Ewing Environmental Commission (eec@ewingnj.org) welcomes suggestions for the Tree of the Month from all Ewing residents.