Rowallane Garden's handkerchief tree

Handkerchief Tree at Rowallane Garden

Known botanically as Davidia involucrata vilmoriniana, it was first discovered by a French missionary, David in 1896, but was introduced by Ernest Wilson in 1904.

The handkerchief tree, located in the hospital, is cloaked in tremendous white flowers - which do indeed resemble white handkerchiefs hanging from the branches. With a surrogate vision in mind, it has also been referred to as the dove tree. When rustled by a light breeze, the flowers give an impression which resembles a flock of white birds smoothly quivering their wings.

The branches can be observed growing horizontally, and ranks of white handkerchiefs adorn the tree. Upon closer inspection, the heads of the flower are most peculiar. In the middle, a band of purple anthers, surrounded by an inch-wide corona of light green petals can be seen. The characteristic white "handkerchief" is actually made up of two white bracts or modified leaves, rather than actual petals.

White bracts hanging from the handkerchief tree
Handkerchief like bracts hang from the tree
White bracts hanging from the handkerchief tree

First encounters

The handkerchief tree is not native to the British Isles. It was discovered in a remote region of China in the nineteenth century.  The tree’s introduction to Europe is reminiscent of a daring adventure story. The first account came from Father Armand David (also known as Pere David), a French missionary and naturalist.  In 1869, he discovered a solitary tree, growing on a mountainside at an elevation of six thousand feet. Dried specimens were sent to Paris in 1871. Ten years later, Augustine Henry, an Irish doctor and plant hunter, found another single tree growing in the Yangtse gorge. A specimen was received by Kew Gardens.

Searching for the Holy Grail

The fabled handkerchief tree, now known as Davidia involucrata, had developed a reputation as the Holy Grail amongst nurserymen. Sir Harry Veitch (who was later instrumental in establishing the Chelsea Flower Show) was the most prominent horticulturist in England. His family nursery in Chelsea was considered as the most notable in the world. Ernest Wilson was among the abundance of plant collectors tasked with searching the globe for new species. He travelled to China in order to find Henry's legendary tree.

Plant Hunter- Ernest Wilson
Plant Hunter- Ernest Wilson
Plant Hunter- Ernest Wilson

Wilson met with Augustine Henry in South Yunnan province in 1899 to identify the tree’s position on a map. He set off with a hand-drawn map with just one tree on it. Wilson eventually located the site, and to his horror had discovered that the tree had just been cut down for timber. Instead of finding a beautiful tree, he gazed upon a stump alongside a newly erected house shaped from the wood. Wilson searched to find another for over two years. It was discovered looming over a precarious cliff edge south-west of Yichang. Wilson’s journey was far from concluded. He was met with more misfortune while transporting his specimens to England. The ship Wilson was aboard ran into complications and the boat was wrecked. Thankfully, he succeeded in saving his precious Davidia.