In Search of Hearts

February 13, 2024

Katsura leaves

Each Valentine’s Day, hearts adorn every surface in my hometown of Montpelier, Vermont. A mysterious someone works in the night to plaster the town’s windows, walls, bridges, and steeples with red splashes of a photocopied heart-art. By morning, smiles adorn the day’s commuters, many of whom reach school or work by foot in this tiny town of 8,000 people.

The oft-used descriptor of “heart-shaped leaves” also paints a delightful picture. But in this part of the world, tree leaves are largely absent in February and the idea of seeing a heart-shaped leaf is just a romantic dream. But that doesn’t stop one Vermont tree lover from having a love affair.

“Katsura is the love of my plant life. Lately it’s been more of a guilty pleasure, though,” writes Middlebury College horticulturist Tim Parsons. A decidedly non-native tree planted in choice settings in Vermont, Cercidiphyllum japonicum grows upright and oval, gracing its viewers with heart-shaped leaves that grow reddish-purple in spring, turn blue-green in summer, and blaze yellow-apricot in autumn before they fall to the ground like forgotten Valentines at winter’s end.

Inhale its curiously pungent qualities and smell the cotton candy, burnt sugar, or, if you lack the needed gene, questionably nothing. Bask in its abundant shade cast by 60 feet of height at maturity (over 100 feet in its native regions in Japan and China). Wander into its weeping cultivar or orbit around its globe-shaped bush variety. There’s no reason to stop the sense of awe.

But if you’re a bird or bee that normally frequents both trees and Valentine’s Day, the katsura tree is eternal winter. Parsons adds, “Katsura is the classic ‘pest free’ tree, ecologically non-existent if you’re a passing animal looking for a quick meal”. Any urban forester could talk from dawn to dusk about the merits of non-native trees in droughty and compact built environments, but thankfully, dawn-to-dusk is a brief period during deep winter.

So while some wait out winter with paper Valentines and chocolate hearts, others (of the arborist ilk) will dream of candy-scented leaves shaped like cookie-cutter hearts. Growing season will be upon us soon. Why not grow hearts?

Author: Joanne Garton, Technical Assistance Coordinator