November 23, 2013

Burnt Sugar

I learned something new recently. I learned katsura trees are aromatic even after all their leaves are down.
In early November I took a walk around the neighborhood one morning, and suddenly caught the unmistakable sweet smell of katsura trees, Cercidiphyllum japonicum.

In autumn they smell of vanilla or burnt sugar. It reminds me of angel food cake baking, or of being at a country fair in autumn, with cotton candy machines spinning out fluffy cones of stickiness that sweeten the air.

There was a katsura tree on the street next to us, and then two at the top of another street. The amazing thing was that in the early part of November, the leaves were all down. I did not even notice that there were katsuras nearby until I caught that fragrance, then looked around, and there I was, standing right near a bare and leafless tree.

I'm starting to be able to tell a katsura from the furrowed bark and stiff, twiggy shape, although it's hard without any heart shaped leaves to check. But the caramel scent was so unmistakable!

There were dried brown leaves at the foot of each tree. No leaves remained on the branches. Can it be that the aroma lingers after the leaves have fallen? Wow.

I thought it was the coloring of the leaves in fall that produced the sweet fragrance. But all three of the trees I saw on my walk were bare. They had lost all their leaves and what laid at the base of the trunks were just a few dried remnants, not a big pile of freshly fallen leaves.

The few dried leaves on the ground did not smell like anything; it was the air that smelled.

Jim didn't smell the fragrance at all, although he knows what I am talking about since he did get the wafting scent from a whole stand of katsuras in the parking lot at Cornell Plantations when we were there in October 2012.

A mature katsura can be a huge spreading thing. Young ones, like the trees I saw on my walk, are stiffly pyramidal, usually branched low to the ground, and kind of twiggy.  Once the scent alerted me, I could tell by the shape what the tree was, even though it had no leaves.
Young katsura at Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge, Mass.
Young katsura at Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Mass.
Mature katsura at Arnold Arboretum at Harvard.

Naturally, I have a katsura tree in my yard, planted for its shade (eventually), its pretty redbud-like leaves and its orange fall color. And of course for the promise of caramels in autumn. But my newly installed tree had no scent this year. It was just put in this September, so as a new transplant it is adjusting.

But how I want to smell that burnt sugar aroma while sitting on the porch some day.


It's November now and time to think of pumpkin pies and stuffing and turkeys. But for some reason I am dreaming of angel food cake. There is a mix in the pantry. I might ask Jim to make one, just so I can smell it baking.

Or I might go take a walk in the neighborhood for the same hint of burnt sugar with far fewer calories.

26 comments:

  1. What a delicious post. Angel Food Cake doesn't have many calories. It is the icing that makes them caloric. I will be sniffing around the neighborhood to smell if anyone around here has this delicious tree.

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    1. Lisa, it is such a wonderful scent when you come across a katsura -- unmistakeable!

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  2. One of my very favorite trees! They are a popular street tree in my neighborhood and I look forward to sniffing them every year. Here in Seattle, they usually turn in early to mid October.

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    1. Emily, I had not seen them used very much around here, so it was a nice surprise to find out there are three just in my own neighborhood. You are lucky to have them planted in your area.

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  3. Nature is awesome. You have a real treat to look forward to with your katsura.

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    1. Kathryn, nature surely is a very awesome landscape designer!

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  4. The specimen that you added to your garden is gorgeous! How lovely it will be when that sweet scent wafts over your garden!!! I think you should make the cake! Just too good to pass up!! A very happy weekend to you!!!

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    1. Nicole, I have great hopes for the tree we just planted this fall. It is the third one! The first little sapling did not thrive, the second little one got deer damaged and storm broken, so now, with this big specimen, I am hoping to have a big, lovely, sweet smelling katsura.

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  5. I love that cotton candy smell...it always stops me and I have to remark about it to whomever I'm with! I've also recently realized that Joe Pye Weed smells similarly of burnt-sugar in the autumn :-)

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    1. Scott, I didn't know Joe Pye Weed had any scent -- I'll be on the hunt for that now! That sugary smell is one of the best things about autumn.

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  6. I had no idea that katsura trees smell like caramel or burnt sugar. Since I haven't smelled that on walks in the neighborhood I surmise they aren't all that commonly planted here. There are very few smells as delicious as caramel.

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    1. Sarah, the nice thing about the fragrance is that it is caramel wafting on crisp fall air. Smelling such sweetness outdoors is what makes it so refreshing.

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  7. I have never experienced that cotton candy fragrance but I have read about it. Michael Dirr says that Katsura is his favorite and it was featured on the cover of one of his editions of Manual of Woody Landscape Plants! It sounds like a practically perfect tree.

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    1. Sweetbay, I agree with Michael Dirr (on a lot of things, actually). It is very hard to go up to a katsura to smell it -- the fragrance has to come to you on the air. So if you ever do see one in fall, step way back and let the breeze carry the scent toward you.

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  8. Well, now I am going to have to add a katsura tree to my tree wish-list! I love the smell of angel food cake!

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    1. Rose, the best part of angel food cake is the smell, of course, and the crusty burnt brown part around the rim! I hope you find a nice katsura to add to your garden.

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  9. Ha, ha, Laurrie: smell or calories? I think that smell and angel food cake! I had heard about this tree having nice smell but it doesn't grow here, it's pity.
    Happy week!

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    1. Nadezda, it's too bad you don't have katsura in your area. They are hardy, and can take a cold winter (we get down to minus 4 or 5 F here sometimes, and that is -20 C) It is a beautiful tree for any garden!

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  10. What a fabulous tree...I would love to smell it....I hope to visit Cornell this coming year and will make sure I find these trees.

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    1. Donna, the katsuras at Cornell line the parking lot. They are young trees, and not very impressive yet. Be sure to go in late October for the smell!

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  11. Laurrie, please stop tantalising me with words like "burnt sugar" and "caramel" - I can't grow this tree here! It's too hot and dry in summer for it to thrive. Seriously, I'm happy for you with your special new tree. That view from the porch window is lovely. By the way, I'm not sure if this is right, but when I was looking it up, I read that it's the male trees that have the narrow, pyramidal, single-trunked shape, and the female ones that are wide and multi-trunked.

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    1. Lyn, I did not know about the male and female trees having separate forms -- this is why I love blogging, I learn so much! I did some hunting after you mentioned it, and only a few tree resource sites mention the disparity. Hmmm, I wonder if I have a male or female katsura?

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  12. Thanks for sharing. I learned something new today ... did not know katsura trees had this scent.

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    1. Joene, I am glad to introduce you to a new fact about this tree!

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  13. Laurrie, your katsura tree is in the perfect place! I don't have this tree, but O would love to find a place for one, just for the smell you describe. I wonder if you need several close together to produce a fragrance strong enough to notice?

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    1. Deb, I don't know about having several together. I have smelled the delicious scent standing under a single specimen -- it is very delicate but noticeable, so I am hopeful my one tree will produce the aroma I long for.

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