Sandy’s Garden ... Cercidiphyllum Japonicum

editorial image

I think that we should still be in the middle of summer.

With the schools still on holiday, some of my neighbours off to enjoy the Mediterranean sunshine and nothing on the news other than the London Olympics … and why have these games not gripped my imagination? … the plant nurseries think that I should already have turned my attention to the up-and-coming autumn and winter. Over the past several weeks, a number of mail-order plant catalogues have thudded through my letterbox, delivered by the happy young Englishman who is my present postie. And, in truth, I have already ordered bulbs for autumn planting and late winter flowering. But there is much more in these catalogues than bulbs; and I rather enjoy browsing their pages during a quiet evening when I cannot be bothered with the frenzied commentaries that seem to be an inevitable accompaniment to Olympic Games coverage.

“Save £7.99,” the headline shouted. But it was the picture of the lovely, rich, golden-yellow, red-tipped foliage of the tree that actually caught my eye. “Katsura Tree,” the text explained. “Cercidiphyllum japonicum” it elaborated, revealing that the tree is a native of Japan … japonicum … and that its leaves … phyllum … look like those of the genus Cercis, which is commonly called the Redbud tree in its native North America. “Don’t be afraid of growing trees in your garden; they aren’t all great big oaks and cedars. Cercidiphyllum certainly isn’t,” the text continues.

Well, that’s as may be, for the website of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew has this to say. “In its native habitat in Japan and China, the Katsura can grow to an impressive 45m (147ft) and is one of the largest deciduous trees in Asia. Traditionally its light timber is used for furniture and interior woodwork but in Britain, where it is grown only for its ornamental value, it rarely reaches more than 14m (45ft).” But an explanation of the apparent gulf between the description given in Thompson & Morgan’s catalogue and that given by Kew Gardens soon follows. “Generally the Katsura amounts to little more than a large bush (in the United Kingdom) as young shoots tend to be killed by severe frosts and chilly winter winds thus restricting its growth. However, its multi-coloured foliage means it features regularly in landscaped gardens and in exotic tree collections.”

And the Katsura tree certainly merits a place in a serious gardener’s paradise for, as well as sporting multi-coloured leaf displays from spring until autumn, the leaves give off an elusive, sweet scent reminiscent of some old-fashioned confectionery. But I think that Scottish horticulturists should pay special attention to the throw-away phrase, “Young shoots tend to be killed by severe frosts and chilly winter winds.” And, although Katsura grows quickly in ideal conditions, it does need deep, permanently damp soil for, in addition to being sensitive to frost, Katsura requires constantly moist soil if it is to thrive; and during spells of dry weather … if we ever get any! … it will drop its leaves to protect the rest of the tree until water is available. Since it is grown for its foliage, a leafless Katsura tree is not an asset to the garden.

So, although the picture appeals and I am tempted to find space for a Cercidiphyllum japonicum, I must insist that reason prevails over sentiment, tell myself that this tree is not for me and restrict my entries on the Order Form to plants that should thrive in central Scotland.

Sandy Simpson, Polmont Horticultural Society