Saturday, September 22, 2012

Air Candy of Autumn: The Caramel Katsura

Cercidiphyllum japonicum, Katsura
     I am blessed to have several Katsura trees outside the entrances to the building where my office is located. This morning after seeing clients, I walked outside and entered the bountiful world of clear autumnal light through which a soft breeze wafted the delicious aroma of caramel. There is no candy maker at hand. The wave of scent derives from the Katsura trees. What a gift for the first day of fall!
     Katsura (Cercidiphyllum japonicum) is a small, multi-stemmed tree that grows to perhaps 40 feet in cultivation. It is native to Japan, where as a deciduous understory tree in the wild it can rise to nearly 150 feet. In the United States, it is hardy in zones 5 through 9 with reliability. The shape of the tree itself reminds me precisely of what I thought a tree should look like when I was a child: slightly lollipop shaped, and not puny like the ones you got in your Halloween treat bag, but big, like the ones you talked your father into buying you at Disneyland.
    In the spring when it first shows its buds, the Katsura can be mistaken for the Western Redbud (Cercis occidentalis, hence its name, Cercidiphyllum, though there is no relationship between these two trees) because the shape of the leaves is similarly heart-shaped. But that's where the similarity ends. Cercis shows maroon leaves early on, and then produces clumps of harsh blue-pink flowers that clash stridently with anything harboring even vaguely yellow undertones.
     In greater harmony with most of the natural springtime palette, Katsura buds tend more toward coral, and the leaves can hold a coral edge until they open to a pure, bright green. In a summer breeze, they flutter lightly due to their shape, giving an overall effect of quiet dynamism. In all, it is a lovely specimen in  a small garden, but even better planted in groups, when the energy of these trees is palpable.
     The true magic begins in autumn when the first cool nights suspend the production of chlorophyll, revealing the magnificent range of colors that underlie the Katsura's summer green: butter yellow, gold, salmon, red, maroon, bright orange, burnt orange, brown. It is a most glorious spectacle when the green takes off for the season.
     And then the aromatic feast begins.
     The floating scent of caramel, the blue sky, and the lower angle of the sun's rays tell me this is the day, now is the moment, when a transition can be felt in all its glory. So many times, things move and blend one into the other without lines of demarcation. We wake up one morning and realize it is no longer spring, but summer. We realize our new pet is no longer a puppy, but a dog. But the moment a Katsura fills the air with the scent of caramel, you feel the moment of the seasonal cusp. With a Katsura in your garden, you have the opportunity to stand on the very spot where summer turns to autumn.
     Soon the scent of caramel begins to fade, and the leaves turn in their chromatic variability for uniforms of yellow before dropping to the ground. The naked tree shows delicate tracery against winter's rain and snow.
     The Katsura tree is garden enchantment. It is our universe up close. It is peerless in its autumnal majesty, and for all the other moments in a year, the Katsura's elegant beauty is gift enough.

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