Tree of the month: The Toffee Tree (Katsura Tree)
This month we take a look at the Toffee Tree! With its heart-shaped leaves and sweet caramel scent, this is a beautiful and fascinating tree species originating from Asia.
Despite their appealing qualities, tall and leafy Toffee trees are not common in the UK. You’re unlikely to see them in your local park or garden. On the rare occasion that a tree-savvy enthusiast does stumble across one however, it is met with excitement and glee. They are a beautiful tree at any time of the year, but the round leaves take on a spectacular shade in the Autumn, with bright yellows, oranges, and pinks.
Most remarkably, the leaves give off a sweet fragrance when they fall at the end of summer. This burnt-sugar perfume brings back unforgettable childhood memories of toffee, caramel, and candyfloss which lingers in the air and causes passers-by to stop in their tracks. Some will say it reminds them of fairgrounds or toffee apples.
A delicate but hardy tree
The leaves of the Toffee tree will have a pink and bronze tint for the first few years before turning into a vibrant, fresh green shade.
During pollination in the spring, the male trees sprout small reddish flowers and disperse their yellow pollen by the wind to the female trees.
The female trees have small, green, banana-shaped fruit that cracks open during the fall season letting a tiny, brown, winged seed fall.
As Toffee trees are primarily propagated by seed there is considerable variation in growth forms, but most tend to be multiple-trunked or at least low-branched.
Whether you have a wide, open garden or a more secluded outdoor space, a colourful, aromatic Toffee tree makes an elegant addition to any landscape. Although they look delicate, they are a hardy species and will grow quickly, requiring little maintenance.
Grow your own Toffee tree
If you’re thinking about planting a Toffee tree, then you will need to pick either a bright or slightly shaded spot, as they like the sun but will grow well in slightly sheltered areas with rich, well-drained soil. The only downside is that they are sensitive to frost, and will drop their leaves if there are any unusual cold spells during the summer.
Their upright shape and curved structure make them a favourite with garden designers who want to bring a bit of height into a landscape.
If you’re looking for a less rigid shape for your garden then you could opt for a Weeping Katsura tree, which has graceful drooping branches that swing down to the ground while still emitting a sweet fragrance. Many of these trees come from a 300-year-old Weeping Katsura tree growing in the ruins of a Buddhist temple in Myosenji, Japan and is sometimes offered as “Myosenji Weeping”.
History of the Toffee tree
Ancient Toffee tree fossils from the Tertiary period were discovered in Europe and North America, but it is believed that they vanished from these countries about 1.8 million years ago due to a change in temperatures. The trees we have today originate from Japan and some areas of Eastern China, where they are known as Katsura trees.
Toffee trees were re-introduced to the United States by Thomas Hogg Jr. in 1865, who was appointed by President Lincoln in 1862 to counsel the Japanese government in establishing a customs office. Along with many other interesting and exotic Japanese plants, he shipped home Katsura seeds to his brother James who operated a family nursery on Broadway in Manhattan. The species didn’t arrive in Britain until 1881.
From the Japanese streambeds
Toffee trees are very sensitive to colder temperatures, so they will usually grow no taller than 14m in countries with cooler climates like our own.
In the moist valleys of Japan and south-central China however, these deciduous trees can grow to greater heights. While they will reach a good size in cities like Kyoto, they positively thrive in the woodlands. As they love moisture, you can often see the Toffee trees following the forest streambeds.
In Japan, the Toffee tree is a prized species that produces soft, fine-grained white wood. Known as Katsura timber, it is used primarily for cabinetry, panelling, and traditional board games. Unfortunately, its popularity coupled with the fact that it regenerates poorly in its natural habitat has caused the species to decline.
A list of nurseries and suppliers selling the Toffee Trees in the UK are found here on the RHS website.