Plant 181

Davidia involucrata Baill. (Cornaceae)


Handkerchief tree

Davidia involucrata is a firm favourite in gardens and landscaped parks. Davidia is a hardy, deciduous tree which grows to around 15 metres. Its true leaves are ovate and bright green, approximately 15 centimetres long. The tiny male and female flowers are arranged in rounded heads, c. two centimetres in diameter. A pair of creamy-white, 20-centimetre-long bracts, shaped like ovate leaves, droop around each flower head, gives the tree its common name (and alternative monikers of dove tree and ghost tree). Usually, formative pruning will give Davidia involucrata a clear trunk of two metres, allowing the bracts to hang for display above head height.

Davidia involucrata is the only species in the genus Davidia, which used to be in the Nyssaceae, a family closely related to the Cornaceae. It is named after Armand David, a French missionary who lived in China, and who first described this tree and many other Chinese plants and animals, including the Giant Panda. David first saw the tree in 1869, growing at an altitude of 2,000 metres in the mountains of south-west China.

Tales of attempts to find further specimens, and cultivate the tree in Europe, create an exciting story over the ensuing 150 years. For 30 years, long searches were made to relocate the original tree and find further trees and seeds. These included the first collection trip for a new Kew employee, 22-year-old Ernest Wilson; the start of a long career as a plant hunter. The tree was found to grow in mixed forests in the mountainous regions of Yunnan, Hubei and Sichuan, sometimes precariously sited on cliff edges. Wilson was nearly killed when his boat capsized on his return journey from collecting, but he, and the Davidia, survived and his seeds reached Kew Gardens in 1901.

The tree became a prize in the West, desired for its ornamental value. It is now rare in the wild due to over-collection. It has an even shape with wide-spreading, horizontal branches, and while its flowers are insignificant, the surrounding oversized leaf-like bracts give the plant great renown. However, it can take 20 years for the tree to flower. The flowering of the tree at Kew Gardens used to prompt newspaper announcements and a flood of visitors to witness the spectacular sight.

Davidia involucrata flowers in late spring. In the Botanic Garden, it is located on the lawn in the north-west corner of the Walled Garden.

Further reading

Marinelli J 2004. Plant. Dorling Kindersley.

Briggs RW 1993. 'Chinese' Wilson, a life of Ernest H. Wilson, 1876-1930. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Kate Burtonwood