Katsura tree, cake tree, gingerbread tree – care of Cercidiphyllum japonicum

The Katsura tree – also called cake tree or gingerbread tree – got its German name from the peculiarity that the withered and fallen leaves develop an intense smell of gingerbread. In autumn, the heart-shaped leaves of the tree, which can reach 45 meters in height, turn bright yellow to scarlet. The cake tree is a real treat for all gardeners looking for something very special for their garden.

occurrence and appearance

The Japanese gingerbread tree is a very old genus that has survived in nature with only two species in a few areas of Asia. It is therefore also referred to as a living fossil.

  • Japanese cake tree
  • Great cake tree

In the temperate latitudes, the Katsura tree is planted as a rare, very decorative ornamental tree in gardens and parks. Various ornamental forms are now available in nurseries, such as the hanging form. The gingerbread tree usually has an upright, loose shape and often occurs with multiple trunks. What is special about the cake tree are its leaves. During their life cycle, they go through a variety of extraordinary color shades. The newly sprouting leaves are light red in colour. When mature, they change color to green and on the other to a bluish tint. The petioles remain reddish throughout until the leaves are shed. In autumn they develop their true colors. The spectrum starts with a bright yellow, varies from peaches and oranges to a rich crimson red.

Another special feature of the cake tree are the two different leaf shapes. It has both long and short shoots. Both types of shoots have different leaf shapes:

  • Short shoots: leaves alternate, palmate veins
  • Long shoots: leaves opposite, pinnate


When you buy the Katsura tree, it is usually only 40-60 centimeters high. Although it grows relatively slowly, you should expect an annual increase of at least 30 centimeters. However, a Katsura tree can grow very large under optimal site conditions and reach a height of up to 45 meters. Although it usually only grows to a height of around 10-12 meters in our latitudes, it is still extremely unsuitable for a small garden.

  • Light requirements: sunny or at least very bright (but cool)
  • Soil: Rich in humus and sandy or loamy, good water storage capacity
  • for example stony loamy soils or sandy clay soils
  • Water requirement: Medium to high
  • It is essential to avoid waterlogging and soil compaction
  • Humidity: high
  • pH value: 5-7 (slightly acidic to neutral)
  • sensitive to heat and drought
  • sheltered from the wind

As an intensive flat and heart-shaped root, the cake tree also tolerates short-term flooding if the soil is otherwise very permeable and the water can drain well. A particularly beautiful autumn color is achieved on acidic soil. Since the tree is sensitive to compacted soil, it should not be planted directly next to paths.


If a sunny location cannot be guaranteed, the cake tree should at least be planted in a very bright place. It should not be placed in the shade of other trees, larger buildings or walls. When selecting the optimal location, it is also important to ensure that a particularly large distance to buildings or pipelines is maintained. Otherwise, the growth of its roots can quickly lead to blockages or a wet basement wall. A gingerbread tree is very sensitive to dense vegetation in its vicinity, so a larger open space should be left at its feet.

  • Planting hole: twice the size of the root ball
  • stamp the earth well.
  • Place the casting ring in the ground (at least ten centimeters high).
  • Water requirement: very high during the growth period

When planting, the planting hole should not be dug too deep: only as deep as the root ball requires. The ground in the planting hole is loosened up. The root system of a tree is often too deep in the ground if it was planted later, i.e. it did not seed itself. If in doubt, it is better to place the bale at least three centimeters higher and to build up the level with loose soil and some mulch as a small mound. If the planting hole is quite deep because the root ball is already quite pronounced, the excavated material should be stored separately:

  • humushaltiger Oberboden
  • mineral subsoil

When refilling, the earth is then refilled in the same layer height and lightly stepped on. However, the soil should not be heavily compacted. If the soil is poor in nutrients, compost can also be worked in during this procedure. The watering edge must be maintained for at least three years to ensure good watering of the young root system.

watering and fertilizing

Even later, the Katsura tree needs water regularly. As soon as the soil is too dry, it reacts with drooping leaves. Even very low humidity can cause problems for him. The gardener recognizes relatively early on from the drooping leaves that the plant is suffering from a lack of water. If this is not remedied early on with extensive watering, the gingerbread tree can react to this by shedding leaves in summer. After thorough watering, however, it usually sprout fully again. An annual fertilization with mature compost is completely sufficient and provides the tree with all the necessary nutrients.

To cut

A cake tree will develop all by itself into a graceful tree with a cone-shaped crown. It should not be forced into a different growth habit. In general, the tree does not require pruning or training pruning. Dead branches and shoots should only be cut out in late autumn or winter. If you want to restrict the growth of your plant for reasons of space, you should only cut back the one-year-old shoots every year. Gingerbread trees do not respond well to a cut in the older wood. In general, the following applies to the cut:

  • Do not cut the continuous leader (trunk extension).
  • Remove competing shoots of the leader as soon as possible.
  • Cut all shoots that grow inwards.
  • Limiting the growth height by cutting the roots

Another way to limit the growth of the Katsura tree is to prune it at longer intervals (every two to three years). To do this, the spade is used to dig deep into the earth all around at a greater distance from the trunk, so that the outer roots are separated from the tree, as if you were digging it up and transplanting it. Pruning the roots will also affect the crown. This effect is mainly used in bonsai cultivation, but it also works with large plants outdoors. After the pruning, the tree must then be watered regularly for a longer period of time.

Cake tree as a container plant

Although the Katsura tree is actually a solitary plant that takes up a lot of space and, above all, light, it is still possible to keep it in a larger planter as a shrub. However, only very young specimens are suitable for this. In addition to a sunny spot on the terrace, attention must be paid above all to high humidity. In dry weather, it should therefore be misted with a spray bottle in the morning and evening. The soil in the pot should be rich in humus and always moist, but never wet. Good drainage is important. It does not tolerate great heat and drought, so it should still be relatively cool despite a sunny location.

Propagation by seeds

The Katsura tree is a dioecious plant of the same sex. This means that there are male and female plants. The reddish flowers appear before the leaves in early spring and are rather inconspicuous. The male flower consists of a cluster of reddish leaflets, while the female flower is reduced to a single carpel with a red stigma. Pollination is done by the wind. Since the plants are rare in our latitudes, the probability of pollination is not necessarily given. The seeds are flat and winged and are located in elongated seed pods.

Once the banana-shaped, slightly violet infructescence has formed on the tree, you can collect it. The seeds are quite delicate and cannot be planted in the garden at any time of the year. In the apartment, however, the plant can be used at any time of the year.

  • Store seeds in the fridge for about a week.
  • Place in moist potting soil with a proportion of sand.
  • Cover with some soil.
  • Cover with foil to improve moisture retention.
  • Temperature: 18-22 degrees
  • Germination time: 3-4 weeks
  • Transplant (singly) when plants have grown a few inches.

When the young plant has reached a height of 40-60 centimeters, it is ready to move to the garden. The best time for this is spring.

Note: Only sterile, nutrient-poor soil should be used for sowing.

Potting soil, cactus soil or coconut fiber (cocohum) are well suited as they are permeable to air and have a good storage capacity for water. The substrate should be moistened before planting the seed and kept evenly moist throughout the germination period, but never wet. To limit evaporation, the culture vessel is covered with a glass or transparent film. This is removed every 2-3 days for airing so that no mold can form. In the first six to eight weeks after budding, you should avoid a location in full sun, but still set up the plants very brightly. After this time, the small plants are then carefully transplanted (potted individually). Care must be taken not to damage the sensitive roots.


The gingerbread tree is completely hardy and frost-resistant in the temperate latitudes. Even the newly sprouted leaves are rarely damaged in spring by the late night frosts. If the tree is in a bucket, a few preparations are necessary so that it survives the winter unscathed:

  • Place the bucket in a bright, sheltered spot in the garden.
  • Be sure to protect yourself from cold winds.
  • Place bucket on thick styrofoam board.
  • Wrap the pot with fleece or packaging film.
  • Cover the soil with dry leaves or brushwood.

Even in winter you should check the soil of the gingerbread tree at regular intervals for its moisture content. In warm and dry periods, watering is essential, even in the cold season.

diseases and pests

Occasionally the cake tree will be attacked by the Verticillium wilt . This devastating fungal disease causes shoots and even entire branches to simply die off. If bare branches can be seen during the vegetation period in spring or summer, they must be cut out very generously. If the fungus affects larger parts of the tree, it must be completely removed from the garden, because there is no antidote to this disease. Plant parts that have been cut off should never be placed in the compost or in the organic waste bin. The fungus is highly infectious and will otherwise spread throughout the garden. Scissors or saws used to remove the diseased parts must also be disinfected (e.g. by flaming).

The katsura tree places very high demands on its location and grows very large, which is why it is not suitable for every garden. However, if it finds a good spot, the gardener can enjoy its sight and scent for years to come.

Kira Bellingham

I'm a homes writer and editor with more than 20 years' experience in publishing. I have worked across many titles, including Ideal Home and, of course, Homes & Gardens. My day job is as Chief Group Sub Editor across the homes and interiors titles in the group. This has given me broad experience in interiors advice on just about every subject. I'm obsessed with interiors and delighted to be part of the Homes & Gardens team.

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