The katsura tree is native to Eastern China, mainly Japan, China, and Korea. Particularly in Japan, the tree is imbedded in folklore - some legends say that the shadow areas on the moon are the silhouette of a magic katsura tree that cannot be cut down. The tree is also linked in name with the Katsura Imperial Villa in Kyoto, whose Palace Garden contains many katsura trees, as well as a viewing platform where you can watch the moon rise. These days, the species is listed as Endangered in Asia (though classified as being Lower Risk).
At one time, long ago, the wild katsura trees were much more widespread. Fossil records show that these trees grew in Europe and even western North America during the Miocene Ephoch (5-23 million years ago). However, during the Pleistocene epoch, it vanished everywhere except in Asia (about the time humankind started developing agriculture in the “Fertile Crescent” in the Middle East).
In 1907, the notable English plant collector E. H. Wilson found forests of katsura trees in south-central China (specifically, the northwest Szechwan province). The wild trees that he found there were enormous, due to the fertile valley in which they grow - the largest that he measured was had a trunk diameter of 17.5 feet! Today, cultivated katsura trees grow to be much smaller.
They were introduced to the United States in 1865 by Thomas Hogg Jr, whose family owned a plant nursery on Broadway in Manhattan. In 1862, Thomas was appointed to be a U.S. Marshal by Abraham Lincoln, and was sent on a diplomatic mission to Japan. In the 10 years that he served there, he sent the seeds of several noteworthy garden plants to home to his brother, James - including those of the katsura tree! And the rest is history.
The timber of the katsura tree is renowned in Japan. The wood is light, soft, not strong, and fine grained; it’s popularly used in cabinetry, paneling, and furniture. In the US, it’s become a popular tree to plant along streets and in residential parks and gardens, due to its hardy, pest-resistant qualities and its ornamental value.