FROM THE GROUND UP: The sweet smell of fall

One of my favorite things to do during the week is to put on my knapsack and walk into Kimberton to check my mail at the post office and shop for groceries at a local store. It’s a nice break from my desk and is reasonably good exercise — three miles round trip and some up-and-down to the landscape.

At this point, I’ve done the walk hundreds of times. Yet no matter how often I’ve walked the route and how familiar the landscape is to me, there’s always something interesting to see: a new tree, shrub, or flower, or a great blue heron winging its way along French Creek looking like something from a scene in one of the Jurassic Park movies.

Last week I was walking home from Kimberton, lost in thought, when I suddenly stopped in my tracks. It wasn’t that something had caught my eye. Something had caught my nose — a sweet, fall smell that was elusive, yet somehow familiar. In a few moments it came to me. It was katsura! I stood there for a few moments enjoying the sweet, unexpected fragrance.

I first heard of the katsura tree when I was studying landscape design at Temple University’s Ambler campus. Overall, katsura is a lovely tree and I’ve always been surprised that it’s not more well-known. Spring and fall are the most interesting seasons. In the spring, the new leaves emerge a purplish color before maturing to green. Very distinctive. In the fall, the leaves turn yellow.

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This isn’t a spectacular yellow like ginkgo, but the fall katsura tree is exceptional for a different reason: as the leaves dry they emit an incredibly delicious aroma. It’s not the pleasant, yet ordinary, autumn-dried-leaf fragrance. This is like something you’d find in a bakery. In fact, the aroma has been described as being like “spun sugar” (cotton candy). At the time of year when the fragrant flowers of things like magnolia, lilac, and wisteria are but a distant memory, this is enchanting.

Fragrant fall leaves would be enough to set the katsura tree apart, but as far as I know, there is no other tree with the story that katsura has to tell. It appears (operative word, “appears”) that katsura is native to Japan, China, and Korea. It was introduced to the United States in 1865 by Thomas Hogg, Jr., while Hogg was on a diplomatic mission to Japan. (Hogg’s family owned a plant nursery on Broadway, in Manhattan — that sounds like a story in itself—so of course he was interested in exotic plants.) (http://bit.ly/2ffuZXa)

Nothing unusual there, however; visitors to and explorers of foreign lands have been bringing new and unusual plants back to America for a long time. But it turns out that Hogg was actually returning a long-lost native; a fact unknown until fossil records revealed that the katsura tree flourished both in Europe and western North America during the Miocene Epoch (5-23 million years ago). During the Pleistocene Epoch, the tree disappeared from everywhere except Asia.

In the United States today, the katsura tree grows well in USDA hardiness zones 5 to 8. The only downside to the tree that I know about is that it tends to be shallow-rooted, with surface roots growing fairly large near the trunk.

Where can you experience a katsura tree? Although my nose detected one on my walk, I couldn’t find it with my eyes and I wasn’t going to wander through backyards looking for it! If you’d like to check out the aroma for yourself and you happen to be in West Chester in the next few weeks, there are several katsura trees growing on the south side of Lacey Street as it approaches the intersection with High Street, along the sidewalk next to the Unitarian Congregation.

Pam Baxter is an avid organic vegetable gardener who lives in Kimberton. Direct e-mail to pamelacbaxter@gmail.com, or send mail to P.O. Box 80, Kimberton, PA 19442. Join the conversation at “Chester County Roots,” a Facebook page for gardeners in the Delaware Valley. Go to Facebook, search for Chester County Roots, and “like” the page. To receive notice of updates, click or hover on “Liked” to set your preferences.