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The singular pocket handkerchief tree

  • The singular pocket handkerchief tree
  • The singular pocket handkerchief tree
  • The singular pocket handkerchief tree

When I ask more knowledgeable gardeners what trees they love the most, it is remarkable how many say the pocket handkerchief tree, Davidia involucrata.

Originally from China, Davidia is a genus with just the one involucrata species. There's nothing else quite like it. Its defining characteristic is its small round red pom pom like flowers cupped by two, much larger, unequally sized white bracts. These hang like a white handkerchief from the hand. Some see them as ghostly or dove-like or giving the effect of large butterflies fluttering in the wind. Whatever, they are a delight and can cover the tree in early May.

The tree in the photos is one I saw last weekend in a garden in Devon. Now 20 years old, it has only flowered the last three or four years. So, as with other flowering trees, such as the Tulip Tree, Liriodendron tulipifera, you have to wait. But it is well worth it.

Davidia involucrata was introduced to this country from China in 1902 by a young plant hunter, Ernest Wilson. Three years earlier, aged just 22, he had set off from England in search of this single tree with just a hand drawn map and some rough instructions. With no Chinese, he overcame bandits, fever and near drowning in a rocky river to track down the tree in the remote Western Hubei province... only to find it had been chopped down and used for the door frames of a house built next to it!

Then, by chance a short while later, he stumbled across two specimens of the tree in the same region.

Wilson devotes a whole chapter of his book 'Aristocrats of the Garden' to the adventure. Trees from the seed he collected did not flower here until May 1911, but received the highest award at that season's Royal Horticultural Society show.

Davidia involucrata matures into a sizeable tree (10-15m) and will grow best in a sunny, sheltered position in deep fertile soil. Large oval green fruit form after pollination and turn a yellowy brown or purple on red stalks in autumn; while the green leaves can turn a pleasing plum purple before they fall.

Comments (5)

  1. Grower

    Helene U Taylor

    Oh, this is a beauty, I have seen it online before, but with my postage stamp size garden which already has a 9m tall Thuja plicata, 2 magnolias, 1 lilac and a 2m tall and wide camellia in addition to all the other plants, I don’t think I could fit one – but I would love to have one :-)
    I wonder if I could manage to grow one as a Bonsai…..

  2. Grower

    Kathy Peck

    Interesting story :-), I've always loved this tree and would love to grow one, my gardens very exposed to wind though so don't know if it'd do to well, although we do have a lower more sheltered area which would be ok maybe its time to rethink the tree that's already planted there ;-)

  3. Grower

    David Penn

    Funny you should mention this - I noticed this wonderful tree with its mysterious white hanging leaves for the first time on my doorstep last week in my local Clowes Park in Salford, Manchester.

    I've lived here - and frequented the park many times - over the last 30 or so years, but never ever seen it flower (it seems pretty non-descript throughout the rest of the year).

    Maybe it was a combination of the heavy rainfall in recent years plus a decent 2013 summer ...

  4. Grower

    Desert to Jungle

    Hi all - Did a bit more digging and found the tree was first discovered by Pere David, a French missionary, in 1869. Hence the name.

    The seeds Ernest Wilson brought back to England in 1902 failed to germinate. After two years they were thrown onto a compost heap ... where they promptly germinated the following spring!

    So the route of the pocket handkerchief tree from China into English gardens was against all the odds!

  5. Grower

    Jeremy Wright

    I was at Stourhead today and saw this mature specimen, fully 18m high and still covered in thousands of blooms. It was planted in 1935.

    • The singular pocket handkerchief tree
    • The singular pocket handkerchief tree

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