Handkerchief tree (Davidia involucrata) at Emmetts Garden

Handkerchief Tree (Davidia involucrata) at Emmetts Garden in spring

Emmetts Garden may be famous for our spring bluebells, but there's plenty of hidden secrets to discover throughout the gardens too that you may never have seen the like of before - like our collection of beautiful handkerchief trees.

Handkerchief tree

As spring arrives in the gardens, our handkerchief trees (also commonly known as dove-trees) are soon covered in beautiful white bracts. It is named for these as they give the appearance of fluttering dove wings or handkerchiefs hanging down from the branches.

At Emmetts Garden we have two varieties in the grounds, Davidia involucrata and Davidia involucrata var. vilmoriniana. We currently have a total of four trees, three juvenile and one original specimen which dates back to about 110 years ago. All of these can be found in the South Garden. 

The tree is a great pollinator for various bees who make the garden home, but only once the bracts have transformed into a creamy white coloration, will they start pollinating the specimen tree. Tthe downy form of the bract acts as an umbrella, which then helps prevent the loss of pollen.

History

According to local legend, the handkerchief tree is said to be the most romantic tree in China, an association which dates back to the Han dynasty.

The dove-tree was first introduced to the United Kingdom by Ernest Wilson. He was a British plant collector and explorer who went on several expeditions to Asia for the Veitch and Sons nursery from 1899. Only guided by a dot on a map, and with no ability to speak the local languages, he still managed to locate a sample of this beautiful tree, ready to bring it back home with him.

Unfortunately for Wilson on his return to the UK his ship smashed on the rocks and he lost his entire collection - apart from his beloved box of Davidia seeds. His specimens first flowered in the UK in 1906.

Fritillaria in bloom at Emmetts Garden, a National Trust property in Kent

Spring colour at Emmetts Garden

From English bluebells to tulips, there is so much to see so why not join us for some seasonal highlights. Find out about what you can see here.

Caring for handkerchief trees

These special trees can stay looking good all summer long with its healthy green foliage, but the handkerchief-like bracts make for an especially remarkable sight in late spring. The trees don’t require much additional work, just to be planted in sun to partial shade, with moist, well-draining soil. 

Our garden team will then carry out cyclical pruning if needed, depending on the outcome of the visual tree inspections.

Our original tree is sadly under decline due to root plate compaction, as some grass footpaths historically ran over this area. As this special plant is irreplaceable, cuttings have been sent to the Plant Conservation Centre of the National Trust to grow a direct copy from the parent tree.

Find out more about the Plant Conservation Centre below:

Member of staff checking the records at the Plant Conservation Centre

Plant Conservation Centre 

Hidden in Devon is a secret garden, dedicated to protecting and cultivating the rare and historically significant plants in our care.