By Eric Garris, Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest

In our search for trees that bring fall color into the landscape, we often choose favorites such as maples and oaks. Often overlooked is a diminutive tree that provides good shade as well as spectacular autumnal foliage.

The Katsura tree (Cerciophyllum japonicum) is a native of Japan and China, but it grows well throughout the central and midwestern U.S. in hardiness zones 4–8. The Katsura’s heart-shaped leaves emerge in the spring with a rosy tint. Flowers are produced on both male and female plants but are rather insignificant, resulting in small, 3/4″ seedpods on female trees. In summer, the mature leaves give this tree a bluish hue, which contrasts nicely against surrounding landscapes.

Reaching 30’ to 40’ in height with equal spread at maturity, it is an intermediate-sized tree that should be planted in full sun to partial shade, and it is well suited in the landscape where space may be limited. Pruning is not necessary other than for form, if needed, when young.

It does well in the urban environment and is tolerant to moderate levels of salts and other pollutants near roadways and island beds. Its roots are not prone to surfacing, making it ideal for planting closer in proximity to buildings and parking areas than larger canopy trees that may cause problems over time. There are no known pests or diseases, and once established, the Katsura requires no special care other than supplemental watering during periods of prolonged drought.

Perhaps the most sensory aspect of the Katsura, apart from its eye-catching color, is its aroma. Cooler fall weather brings out the colorful yellow, burgundy and orange tints in the leaves, while providing the scents of cotton candy and brown sugar to the air nearby. Bernheim Arboretum has a 50-year-old specimen that draws comments from visitors each year due to its spicy fragrance.

There are several forms of Katsura that are of great interest in the industry, including weeping forms, ‘Pendula’ and ‘Amazing Grace’. Both are terrific cultivars and remain smaller than the species, reaching 15’ to 25’ with a graceful, mounding habit, making them ideal specimen trees for the collector’s landscape. Katsura ‘Red Fox’ is also noteworthy with beautiful deep burgundy spring growth.

Available as both single and multi-stemmed tree, the Katsura is a superb addition to the woodland garden or urban landscape.