Dove tree in flower
An extraordinary tree is currently flowering in the Gardens this week, with a history of adventure and Victorian derring-do!
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".
- Find out more about Ernest Wilson in the new book Wilson's China: A Century On by Mark Flanagan and Tony Kirkham.
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