Tree Talk: Yet another gift from old Japan

Tree Talk: Yet another gift from old Japan

Tree Talk: Yet another gift from old Japan

Want to learn more about neighborhood trees? Steve will lead a walking tour of Madison Park's arbors on Saturday, June 3. The tour begins at 10:30 a.m. at Park Shore, 1630 43rd Avenue East. The event is sponsored by the Madison Park Community Council and free to attend.

Prized for its quiet elegance, the Katsura tree (Cercidiphyllum japonicum) is woven into Japanese culture like the threads of a kimono. So beloved is this plant that its common name is derived from the Katsura District of Kyoto, an area along the Katsura River and the location of The Tale of Genji (1021 AD). Later, in the early 1600s, Prince Toshihito built what is now called Katsura Imperial Villa. The members of the Heian Court found it “an elegant location for viewing the Moon.” Today the villa is considered one of the most important cultural and historic treasures in Japan for its architecture and gardens. Given both the intricacies and subtleties of Japanese culture, it is not surprising that this tree of understated majesty would be named for so much of what is central to the traditions of Japanese beauty.

Fifty years ago, it would be hard to find a Katsura Tree in the Pacific Northwest. Now, they march along parking strips, cast their delicate shade over South and West facing windows, and stand at the far corners of well designed gardens as regal focal points. Given our mild climate, rich acid soil and abundance of rain, these trees flourish here as magnificently as they do in Kyoto.

The shape of these trees is simple. In their youth they are nearly pyramidal. Branches stretch out and up from the trunk with handsome bark which is brown with streaks of silver, becoming somewhat shaggy in adulthood. The delicate branches hold dense rows of heart-shaped leaves with serrated edges. The leaves emerge in April, a rich burgundy color. By Summer the leaves have aged to a bluish green often edged with a thin reddish line. With Autumn the leaves turn yellow or apricot before dropping, leaving the sculptural branches to gently filter Winter sunlight and veil views beyond.

Katsura trees are available in sizes from 1 to 15 gallon containers, sometimes bigger, their root balls wrapped in burlap and tied. They are best planted in early November, when dormant, allowing them to go into the first Summer a bit established. If you cannot wait, you can plant them in warmer months, but never allow young trees to dry out. For the first two or three summers they will require regular irrigation in the hottest weather: fifteen gallons of water a week, if the season has high temperatures and is without rainfall. Once established the tree will do well with what nature provides, growing steadily over the years to an eventual height of 40 to 60 feet, although a few robust plants have reached 100 feet. Katsura trees have proven to be impervious to most pests and diseases and live for generations. If you buy a small tree and cut out the terminal shoot, allowing several side shoots to grow, you can establish it as a multi-trunked plant. But be careful. A mature tree is often as wide as it is tall and pruning it usually results in an unwanted chopped-up look, destroying the tree’s natural form.

Once established in your garden, Katsuras are undemanding and forever inspiring. The music of the rustling leaves will fill a Summer night and you may find yourself sitting on your deck, looking out to your Katsura tree, sipping green tea and looking at the Moon.

STEVE LORTON is the former Pacific Northwest editor of Sunset magazine.