14 Jun

Tree of the month: the Handkerchief Tree

This month we take a look at the Handkerchief Tree! Also known as the Dove Tree or the Ghost Tree, this very rare and slow-growing species is known for its white bracts that flutter in the wind...

This deciduous and ornamental tree is native to south central and southwest China, but can be found in the UK in parks and gardens. A rare and special tree, there was a time when, once a year, a national newspaper would announce that a particular tree in Kew Gardens was in flower. Londoners would flock to the gardens in huge numbers each May to see the famous handkerchief tree.

With greyish-brown and finely flaking bark, the Handkerchief tree has broad, oval-shaped leaves that can be anything up to 15cm long. One is reminded of a Valentine’s heart, with the leaves pointed at the tip and rounded towards the base, but with neat, pointed triangles running all around the edge. The leaves’ stalks will usually be very long too, most commonly in a green shade but often can be pink or red.

Special characteristics

What makes this species of tree stand out from the crowd however, is the conspicuous pair of large, asymmetrical white bracts, which appear in late spring and look like scraps of white cotton hanging from the foliage. It’s easy to assume that the bracts are petals, and they certainly perform the same function, but on closer inspection you’ll notice that they are separate from the main flower and are modified leaves.

In comparison to the leaves and bracts, the flowers themselves are small, growing in dense bunches along the length of the branch. Predominantly the flowers will be male, with dark purple-ish stamens.

Bract; noun | scale-like or leaf-like structure, growing from the axil from which a single flower blooms

This tree prefers a cooler, more balanced climate. It will not survive well in hot, humid temperatures and it does not do particularly well in colder weather either. Once the flowers fade, ovoid greenish-brown fruits form and then fall to the ground.

The seeds may self-germinate but this may take up to two years, as they have to be frozen twice in successive winters first, and it may take up to 15 years for the tree to come to flower, making it a rare and special tree.

An exciting discovery

The Handkerchief tree is known by a few other names too, such as the Dove Tree (because the bracts look like fluttering wings in the breeze) and the Ghost Tree. The tree’s Latin name, Davidia involucrata, comes from Father Amand David, a French missionary who lived in China and was the first to tell the world of the species after coming across a lone tree growing on a mountainside. David promptly sent specimens back to Paris in 1871.

Ten years later, the Scottish plant hunter, Augustine Henry, found another single tree, in the Yangtse gorge; and sent a specimen to Kew Gardens. It wasn’t long before this rare and beautiful tree was yearned for by the world’s best horticulturalists, and plant collector, Ernest Wilson, was sent to China to meet with Henry and find his tree.

At the age of 22, Wilson had never been abroad before and didn’t speak a word of Chinese. He went with a hand-drawn map and a few written instructions to guide him to the only existing specimen. His journey involved escaping local bandits, surviving a deadly illness, and nearly drowning in a rocky river when his boat capsized.

Poor Wilson endured so much, only to discover that the tree had been felled for timber to build a house. Not one to give up, he went on to find other Handkerchief Trees and was able to send seeds back to England in 1901. Because of his determination and dedication to the cause, Wilson found hundreds of other plants and is acknowledged as the most pioneering botanist of his generation.