Every autumn I go on a smelling tour of the neighborhood. I pick a breezy, sunny day and go for a walk around the nearby streets, sniffing the air. And then . . .
. . . I catch it.
The unmistakable cotton candy smell of Cercidiphyllum japonicum. I've written every year about how these lovely trees smell in fall. The burnt sugar scent is something tree manuals describe and some other people have noted on occasion, but no one seems to have the atavistic, deeply rewarding and primitively intoxicated reaction I get when I smell a katsura tree.
It wasn't the pretty yellow colored katsura pictured above that smelled so divine, though. Katsuras do color beautifully in fall, but the tree above in a neighbor's yard was the only one on my walk that I saw with any fall color. It didn't have any scent.
Instead, it was the tree in front of this house, just browning up a bit and not at all colorful, that gave off that hard to catch whiff of angel food cake.
Most of the katsuras in the neighborhood were either brown or green, not much to look at this year for fall color.
There is a stand of three katsuras on another nearby street that had some pale yellow fall color. They always look a bit shaggy, not as elegantly formed as some of the others, and never pruned or shaped. But they are reliable in producing the sugar smell. I always get a whiff when I walk by this stand.
It's not an overwhelming or sweet smell, and you can't walk up to a tree and sniff the leaves. The scent has to come to you in gentle, periodic waves from a distance away, on a puff of sun-heated breeze. That's the only way you can sense it. Many people can't even smell it when I point it out to them.
For some reason I am highly aware, and acutely sensitive to the scent and it gives me such pleasure as I take my sniff tours, snapping iPhone photos and inhaling deeply in front of people's houses.
Caramel. Cotton candy. Burnt sugar. Angel food cake. Autumn in the neighborhood.