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13. Katsura Tree

Cercidiphyllum japonicum: Katsura Tree

Cultural Significance

Katsura Tree is instrumental in Asian folklore and is incorporated in many ancient Chinese and Japanese legends, including an explanation for the shadow on the moon. Japanese folklore presents Katsura Tree as the means by which gods descended from the heavens and symbolized the joining of earth and sky. In another Japanese legend, a man being punished by the gods was sentenced to cut down a giant Katsura Tree on the moon. It is said that the shadow of the moon is the result of the shade of the magic Katsura Tree, which cannot be cut down. It continually grows back and the man is trapped on the moon forever.

The Katsura Tree moved from China to Japan, eventually becoming a part of some private European and American gardens in the early 19th century. As American-Japanese relations strengthened in the 1860’s, Japanese plants began to immigrate to the United States. In 1865, Thomas Hogg sent Katsura seeds from Japan to his brother in New York City, who ran a nursery business. Possibly due to the particularity of the tree, Katsura was not traded openly as an ornamental until 1965.

Native Ecosystems

Fossils indicate that Katsura Tree has existed for at least 1.8 million years and flourished throughout Asia and North America. Due to its preference for moderate temperatures and moisture, ice encroachment segmented populations of the tree in China, where it remained until human cultivation. Katsura Tree is native to China, Korea and Japan where it is found in moist environments of moderate temperatures. Katsura Tree is susceptible to frost and lack of moisture. Frost can damage buds and effect leaves and flowers. If conditions are too dry, Katsura Tree will shed its leaves to conserve moisture. Leaves do not return until conditions are adequate. Katsura Tree prefers neutral or slightly alkaline soils. In its native ecosystem, Katsura Tree can propagate asexually by generating sprouts either spontaneously with age or in response to external factors, such as increased sunlight from forest thinning. Because of its rarity and poor seed production, there is little invasive potential from Cercidiphyllum japonicum.

Beneficial Uses

The wood of the Katsura tree is fairly weak, but attractive. Katsura wood is used for furniture, wall-molding (or other interior designing accents) and even cardboard boxes. The bark of Katsura Tree is considered showy, and desirable for winter landscapes. The bark includes deep fissures, which can result from binding the trees multi-trunks into a single trunk. This gives the bark of the trunk a textured, complex appearance. As the tree ages, the trunk may take on a shaggy appearance. Katsura Tree has a tendency to grow external roots. While this adds visual complexity to the base of the tree, external roots can be hazard for pedestrians.

Biological Characteristics

Cercidiphyllum japonicum is a member of the Cercidiphyllaceae family. “Cercis” is a reference to having red buds and “phyllum” means leaf. Katsura, Cercidiphyllum japonicum, is a deciduous tree that can reach a height of 40-60 feet and a spread of 35-60 feet. Katsura is a relative of the magnolia trees and the tulip trees. While it doesn’t have the showy flowers of its botanical cousins, it is well known for its heart-shaped leaves and its pleasant symmetrical form. Katsura has a disparity between male and female trees. Male trees tend to grow more upright and tall, female trees tend to grow outward and have a wider appearance.

The leaves of the Katsura Tree are unique and pleasing. Famous for their heart-like shape, the leaves are simple, with crenate (shallow lobed) margins. The lily-pad leaves are a soft-green during summer, arising from red buds. In the fall, the entire tree turns bright yellow in a dazzling autumnal display. Fall foliage is fragrant; the smell of the leaves is likened to caramelized sugar. Katsura Tree is dioecious with separate male and female trees. If Katsura is pollinated (rare in the United States due to scarcity), insignificant flowers develop into a banana shaped pod, containing seeds. Seed production is poor, even in a wild setting.