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Dove tree in flower

An extraordinary tree is currently flowering in the Gardens this week, with a history of adventure and Victorian derring-do!

Flower of the dove tree (Image: RBG Kew)

The dove (or handkerchief) tree (Davidia involucrata) is best known for its striking display in late spring. Its small reddish flower heads are surrounded by a pair of large, white bracts up to 30cm long, which resemble handkerchiefs or doves resting on the branches.

Native to central China, it is the only member of its genus and has two varieties, Davidia involucrata var. involucrata, whose leaves have short hairs on the underside, and Davidia involucrata var. vilmoriniana, with hairless leaves. The latter is more common in cultivation and there is a fine specimen in the Woodland Garden, which although badly damaged by a falling birch in the storm of January 2007, is in fluttery flower this week. The seeds germinate erratically and subsequently it can take 10 to 20 years of growth before the young tree flowers.

This species was discovered in 1868 by French missionary and naturalist Père Armand David, after whom it was named. He also was the first westerner to to describe the giant panda. However, the plant's introduction to western gardens in 1904 was down to nursery owner Sir Harry Veitch, and his plant collector, Kew-trained Ernest "Chinese" Wilson.

Wilson set off in 1899 on an epic journey into the remote Sichuan Province of China to find a single specimen, with only a hand-drawn map and a few written instructions to guide him. On his way, he escaped local bandits, survived a potentially deadly illness and nearly drowned when his boat overturned in a rocky river. When he did finally find the location of the tree, Wilson discovered that it had been cut down and used to build a house. However, the intrepid Wilson managed to find other specimens in both Sichuan and Hubei Provinces and sent the seeds back to England in 1901.

As Tony Kirkham says, "It is one of Wilson's key introductions not only because it launched his career but also because of its singular beauty".

There are other specimens planted near the Azalea Garden as well as behind the Waterlily House. But be quick - it doesn't flower for long!

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2 July 2013
I have a Dove tree and its beautiful light green cloour but p to press I have never seen it flower We have had it around 7 years now. How long do I wait for this to happen?
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30 April 2013
The Dove tree / Handkerchief tree usually flowers in May. It’s not in flower yet. Specimens of it can be found near the Azalea Garden and one in the Woodland Garden. For full information on the trees at Kew, go to For interactive map of the tree see
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22 April 2013
is dove tree flowering in the Gardens right now? or when? and in which location in the garden? look forward to your advise before making a visit. thank you very much. best regards Shirley
20 November 2011
Hi, I have a davidai involucrata in our garden but it is very close to two other largish trees. I want to move it, when is the best time please. Thanks
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12 October 2011
Hi Julie. You can find information on cultivating this tree together with a link to propagating from seed on the RHS website: We hope this helps.
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11 October 2011
Thanks for your question Julie. We'll post any of our findings here on this thread so please do check back soon.
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6 October 2011
Hi I have a handerchief tree in my garden. We've lived here for almost 5 yrs and last year I lightly pruned the tree (only 8-10ft) and that spring/summer I saw the beautiful flower. This summer I had blooms again. I know this is a rare tree taking 10+ yrs to bloom. It is so pretty. I want to try planting from seed. Is there anything I should NOT do? I read the comment below. I live in Goring-by-Sea, UK. 5min walk to sea.
25 May 2010
Thanks for your question John. Firstly, the fleshy covering of the seed is scraped off (the seed is very hard and won't be damaged in this process).The seeds, which are nut-like, are then sown in seed compost, with a covering of grit and placed in a cold frame outdoors where they experience warming and cooling of the seasons which will break the seed's dormancy. This process can take up to 2 to 3 years to happen - so patience is required!
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21 May 2010
How do you extract seed from shell without damaging it? How do you propagate them and what are their requirements?