Picture from 'Voice in the Garden Blogspot'
Picture from ‘Voice in the Garden Blogspot’

In researching this article I’ve solved a little mystery. A couple of years ago I ‘liberated’ some curious looking fruits from a tree in a grand garden in Cornwall I was visiting. It was autumn and the leaves were a beautiful muted rusty golden colour. I couldn’t identify it at the time and the three fruits have been sitting on my desk ever since both intruiging and annoying me!

Well it turns out that they are the fruits of Davidia involucrata, better known as the ‘Paper Handkerchief’  or ‘Dove Tree’ because of its large white bracts enclosing the flower (and followed by the fruit). It looks like it may be a long and fiddly business to grow from seed, but I think I’ll have a go!

Common name: ‘Paper Handkerchief’ or ‘Dove’ Tree

Native areas: originally from damp woods in south West China, it is extremely endangered in the wild and also rare in cultivation.

Historical notes: discovered by Pere David in 1869 and introduced in 1904. It first flowered in 1911 on Veitch’s Coombe Wood nursery.

Features: a broadly conical, very beautiful tree that is (eventually) fast growing and of medium to large height, growing to 10-15 metres at maturity. However, it is difficult to grow from a young age and seems to thrive once it gets beyond 2-3 metres tall. Foliage and habit are similar to the Lime.The sharply toothed leaves are heart shaped to around 15 cms long, are pinkish in spring turning bright green above, densely hairy beneath in summer, then turn to gold in the autumn. The flowers are tiny but it is the large white flower bracts up to about 15 cms long that put on a great show in late spring. The fruits are rounded and green, up to 1.5 inches across, later ripening to brown (like the 3  I have here!). The attractive bark is orange brown and peels vertically in flakes.

Uses:  very good in parkland or as a specimen and does best in a sheltered position. Sometimes the cultivar ‘Vilmoriana’ is specified, but it appears to be very similar to the parent species.

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Growing conditions: Davidia grows best in a sheltered spot in deep fertile soil. It responds to light summer pruning. Growing tips can frost off if it is subjected to icy winds and invariably the best specimens are seen nestled away in a comfy sheltered spot. They also respond well to fertilizers with lots of potassium. They are best trained to a central leader when young with lower branches gradually removed. Propagation is from seed sown immediately upon ripening, germination can take up to 1.5 years but seedlings grow fast. It can also be grown from semi-ripe cuttings taken during late summer. Insect pest and disease problems rarely occur and are not serious.

Further information:


RHS- Davidia involucrata

Barcham trees directory

Old School Gardener