Plant Spotlight – Handkerchief tree

The handkerchief tree Davidia involucrata, also known as the dove tree or ghost tree, is native to South Central and Southwest China.

The tree is known as the dove tree in Chinese mythology. Based on what

is apparently a true story, various versions of the legend exist but the basic gist is thus…During the Han dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), the beautiful princess Zhaojun Wang was married to the king of a distant northern tribe and was sent to live with him, a thousand miles from her home. Missing her family, Zhaojun sent letters home attached to doves, which, exhausted from their long journey, finally always landed to rest in a particular tree outside her family’s home. When in flower the tree looked like it was full of the white doves she had sent and was hence named after them.

Unknown in western civilisation until the latter part of the 19th Century the genus Davidia was named by the French missionary and keen naturalist Father Armand David, more commonly known as “Père David”. David first described the tree in 1869 writing about a single tree he had found in the mountains, the likes of which he had not encountered before. He sent dried specimens to Paris and in 1871, the French botanist Henri Baillon confirmed it as a new genus and species.

In May 1888, British plant hunter Augustine Henry found another single tree, this time in the Yangtse Ichang gorges. In his diary he wrote ‘It seemed as though the branches had been draped in thousands of ghostly, white handkerchiefs.’ He sent a sample to Kew Gardens but it was another thirteen years before the first seeds made their way back to Great Britain.

Eminent Horticulturalist Sir Harry Veitch sent numerous plant collectors around the world in search of prized species for his family nursery in Chelsea, which was regarded as the foremost in the world. Among these was a young Ernest H Wilson, later to become known as the renowned ‘Chinese Wilson’. In 1899 Sir Harry commissioned Wilson to travel to China in search of the very tree that Henry had found 11 years earlier. At just 22 Wilson, who had never been abroad before, did not speak a word of Chinese and after briefly meeting with Henry in South Yunnan province, set off with only a hand-drawn map and a few written instructions to guide him. His travels were not without ‘drama’ and he reputedly escaped local bandits and survived a deadly illness, only to arrive at the site of Henry’s original tree and discover it had been felled for lumber!

However, Wilson later found a further grove of the trees from which he collected seeds and specimens which he luckily managed to save when he nearly drowned when his boat overturned in a rocky river on his return journey!

Records then become a little confusing, citing 1901 as the date these specimens arrived, 1903 as the first tree to be grown at Kew and 1904 as the date the tree was introduced into Europe and North America. This confusion may be down to the fact that the plant is not very easy to propagate from seed as they can take 18 months to 2 years to germinate and need to be frozen for two successive winters in order to break dormancy. Some gardeners leave the fleshy coating on them as it helps prevent the nutlet inside from drying out. Others recommend taking hardwood cuttings, during the dormant season after leaf fall, as an alternative to the lengthy germination process.

The new introductions did eventually start to flourish and produced such a stunning and unusual spectacle when in full bloom that the Times used to print a notice every May announcing when the famous Kew Handkerchief tree was in flower. Hordes of Londoners would then descend on the garden to see the enormous white flowers

The tree became popular with plant hunters and started to appear in gardens across the country. They prefer a sheltered position in sun or partial shade in moist but well drained, slightly acidic soil and can take an extremely long time to reach flowering maturity, up to 15 to 20 years. However, there are alternative cultivars were developed and became popular for those that didn’t wait that long. One such example is Davidia involucrata ‘Sonoma’ which is said to flower in just 2 or 3 years!

At Winterbourne we have a brilliant mature handkerchief tree that flowers prolifically each May. It is in fact a Davidia involucrata var. vilmoriniana, one of the most popular cultivars which has proved  much better able to adapt to the climatic conditions in the west, and is planted in the Geographical Beds in the Chinese section alongside other trees and shrubs found growing in that region. It was planted in April 1960 as part of what were then new Geographical Beds, themselves designed and laid out in the very early 1960’s as well.

If you do decide to nurture one of these beauties in your own garden it’s also worth remembering that the tree is quite large when mature, often exceeding 12m in height. Cornus kousa var. chinensis ‘White Dusted’ and Cornus kousa ‘Schmetterling’ are both good alternatives if space is at a premium. Both have white bracts similar to Davidia but only reach 2.5m – 4m in height.

For those that are looking for something really different, Davidia involucrata ‘Lady Sunshine’ has strongly pronounced, creamy-golden, variegated foliage, but it is very rare and difficult to find available for sale.

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