Davidia involucrata var. vilmoriniana

Handkerchief Tree (Davidia involucrata) (340)

Common names:

  • Pocket Handkerchief Tree
  • Dove Tree
  • Ghost Tree

Location in the Gardens:

Season of interest:

  • Late spring (May)

Description of plant:

Davidia involucrata has masses of glorious, white flower bracts in May (up to 15 cm long) on mature specimens. These beautiful flower bracts dance in the breeze, looking like fluttering handkerchiefs or doves, and are followed by large green fruit later in the year.

The leaves are oval and bright green, sometimes turning shades of plum purple before falling in autumn. One of the most spectacular flowering garden trees once established!

Davidia involucrata is the only member of the genus but there are two varieties differing slightly in their leaves. Some botanists treat them as distinct species as they have differing chromosomes and cannot produce fertile hybrids.

In D. involucrata var. involucrata - leaves are alternate, 5 inches/12.5cm long, edged with large triangular pointed teeth and short white hairs on the undersides.

In D. involucrata var. vilmoriniana - leaves alternate but are narrower, hairless and shiny on the undersides.

Ideal growing conditions and habitat:

Fully hardy but needs shelter from strong winds. Requires sun or semi-shade and fertile, well drained, preferably moist soil.

Country of origin:

  • Native to south-central and south-west China.

Highdown history:

A Davidia first flowered in England in 1911 at the Veitch nursery from the seed brought back from China in 1904 by E.H. Wilson. Stern thought to get some of this seed when it was put on sale, without at the time knowing whether the tree would grow on chalk; it was not then known that there was limestone in its mountainous native area in China.

The seed germinated and “a small plant was put in the chalk pit in the 1920's, first flowering in May 1934 with two flowers, and flowering all over in May 1937.”

By 1960 the tree was 30' high with a girth of 3'1''.

The seed sale prompted Stern to take a small share in the Farrer expedition of 1914. It was found that plants from this area growing above 7/8,000ft. proved hardy in most British Isles gardens, and were chalk tolerant, and so began the collection of many of these plants now growing successfully in Highdown Gardens.

Other interesting information:

First discovered by, and named after, the French missionary Père David.

Handkerchief Tree (Davidia involucrata) in the Chalk Pit Garden

Handkerchief Tree (Davidia involucrata) in the Chalk Pit Garden (744)

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