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Davidia involucrata (handkerchief tree)

Native to China, handkerchief tree was once considered to be the Holy Grail of exotic flora, and seeds were first sent to England by the legendary botanist Ernest Wilson in 1901.

Flowering branch of the handkerchief tree

Flowering branch of Davidia involucrata (handkerchief tree)

Species information

Davidia involucrata Baill.

handkerchief tree, dove tree, ghost tree

Listed as rare in the China Plants Red Data Book (1992).

Montane mixed forests, including Quercus-Prunus-Corylus forests.

Ornamental.

None known.

Taxonomy

Equisetopsida Magnoliidae Asteranae Cornales Cornaceae Genus: Davidia

About this species

A deciduous tree from China, handkerchief tree is best known for its striking display of floral bracts in late spring. Its small, reddish purple flower heads are surrounded by a pair of large, white bracts up to 30 cm long, which are said to resemble dangling handkerchiefs or doves resting on the branches.

Davidia involucrata is the only member of the genus Davidia. It was named after French priest and naturalist Father Armand David, who was also the first westerner to describe the giant panda.

Davidia tibetana David, Davidia laeta Dode, Davidia vilmoriniana Dode, Davidia involucrata var. vilmoriniana (Dode) Hemsl., Davidia involucrata subsp. vilmoriniana (Dode) Holub.

Davidia

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Geography and distribution

Handkerchief tree is native to central and southern China.

Description

Davidia involucrata (handkerchief tree) fruit

Fruit of Davidia involucrata

Overview: Deciduous tree up to 20 m tall, with bark lifting from the trunk in large flakes.

Leaves: Vivid green and heart-shaped with a fine point at the tip. Young leaves are scented.

Flowers: Borne in compact, roughly spherical, reddish purple flower heads, about 2 cm in diameter. Flower heads are overshadowed by a pair of thin, white bracts, the longest one being up to 30 cm long and about twice the size of the other. The delicate bracts flutter in the breeze giving rise to the common names handkerchief, dove and ghost tree.

Fruits: Hard, dark-green nuts, which turn purple when ripe. Each fruit contains 6–10 seeds. Seeds germinate erratically, and trees may need 10–20 years to flower.

Dramatic discovery

Handkerchief tree was first described by French priest and naturalist Father Armand David on a trip to China in 1868; however, it was not introduced to Britain for another 35 years, and then only after a remarkable sequence of events.

Preserved specimens of Davidia involucrata had been sent to Kew, and nurseryman Henry Veitch expressed an interest in obtaining some seeds from which to grow the tree. In 1899 he commissioned a young Kew-trained botanist called Ernest Wilson to go to China to find the handkerchief tree. This presented a challenge for 22-year-old Wilson, who had never been abroad before and did not speak a word of Chinese.

Ernest Wilson portrait by Magnus Irvin

Portrait of Ernest Wilson by Magnus Irvin

With only a hand-drawn map and a few written instructions to guide him, Wilson set off into the remote Yunnan region of China in search of the single known existing specimen. 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 finally found the location of the tree, Wilson was mortified to discover that it had been cut down and used to build a house. Fortunately, he went on to find other specimens and was able to send seeds back to England in 1901.

After spending many years in China, he also found hundreds of other plants and became famous in the process.

The foremost plant collector of his generation, he is commonly referred to by botanists and horticulturalists as EH ‘Chinese’ Wilson.

Uses

Handkerchief tree is grown as an ornamental in parks and gardens.

Millennium Seed Bank: Seed storage

The Millennium Seed Bank Partnership aims to save plant life worldwide, focusing on plants under threat and those of most use in the future. Seeds are dried, packaged and stored at a sub-zero temperature in our seed bank vault.

See Kew’s Seed Information Database for further information on Davidia involucrata seeds

Davidia involucrata (handkerchief tree) tree

Davidia involucrata at Kew Gardens

Cultivation

Handkerchief tree has been propagated from seed at Kew, sometimes using seed collected from Kew’s own mature specimens. Seeds require both warm and cold stratification in order to germinate. At Kew, this is achieved by placing the seed into polythene bags containing sand or perlite. The bags are kept in a warm place for four to six months, followed by storage in a cold place for three months.

Seeds are large with a deeply ridged surface and split into orange-like segments on germination. Several of these segments may then grow into a young plant. Germination success is about 50%.

Davidia involucrata (handkerchief tree) flower

Reddish purple flower head overshadowed by a pair of thin, white bracts.

After germination, seedlings are potted into 13 cm air-pots. Air-pots have bumps and holes in the sides to encourage the roots to grow outwards rather than spiralling. At first, seedlings are placed in an unheated glasshouse before the pots are placed outside and then planted on in the nursery field. After about two years, they are large enough to be planted in the open in their final positions within the Gardens.

Handkerchief tree grows well in the sandy soil at Kew. The young plants exhibit healthy dark red shoots and take about ten years to flower, after which flowers are produced in most years. Handkerchief tree is hardy, but in some years flower buds are damaged by late frost.

This species at Kew

Davidia involucrata has been grown at Kew since 1903. Perhaps the best example can be seen growing behind the beech clump, close to the Azalea Garden. Handkerchief trees can also be seen behind the Waterlily House. They are typically in flower in May.

Dried and alcohol-preserved specimens of Davidia involucrata are held in Kew’s Herbarium, where they are available to researchers by appointment.

Details and images of some of these can be seen online in Kew’s Herbarium Catalogue

Specimens of fruits and seeds of Davidia involucrata are held in Kew’s Economic Botany Collection, where they are available to researchers by appointment.

References and credits

eFloras (2012). Flora of China: Davidia involucrata. Available online (accessed on 12 November 2012).

Fu, L. K. (ed.) (1992). China Plants Red Data Book Volume 1: Rare and Endangered Plants. Science Press.

Harrison, C. (2008). Kew’s Big Trees. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Mabberley, D. J. (2008). Mabberley’s Plant-book: a Portable Dictionary of Plants, their Classification and Uses, 3rd Edition. Cambridge University Press, New York.

World Checklist of Selected Plant Families. (2010). The Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Available online (accessed on 13 November 2010).

Kew Science Editor: Michiel van Slageren and Emma Tredwell
Kew contributors: Tony Hall, Emma Crawforth
Copyediting: Emma Tredwell

Although every effort has been taken to ensure that the information contained in these pages is reliable and complete, notes on hazards, edibility and suchlike included here are recorded information and do not constitute recommendations. No responsibility will be taken for readers’ own actions. 

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