1. Family: Nyssaceae Juss. ex Dumort.
    1. Genus: Davidia Baill.
      1. Davidia involucrata Baill.

        A deciduous tree from China, handkerchief tree is best known for its striking display of floral bracts in late spring. Its small, reddish purple flower heads are surrounded by a pair of large, white bracts up to 30 cm long, which are said to resemble dangling handkerchiefs or doves resting on the branches.

    [KSP]

    Kew Species Profiles

    General Description
    Native to China, handkerchief tree was once considered to be the Holy Grail of exotic flora, and seeds were first sent to England by the legendary botanist Ernest Wilson in 1901.

    A deciduous tree from China, handkerchief tree is best known for its striking display of floral bracts in late spring. Its small, reddish purple flower heads are surrounded by a pair of large, white bracts up to 30 cm long, which are said to resemble dangling handkerchiefs or doves resting on the branches.

    Davidia involucrata is the only member of the genus Davidia. It was named after French priest and naturalist Father Armand David, who was also the first westerner to describe the giant panda.

    Species Profile

    Geography and distribution

    Handkerchief tree is native to central and southern China.

    Description

    Overview: Deciduous tree up to 20 m tall, with bark lifting from the trunk in large flakes.

    Leaves:Vivid green and heart-shaped with a fine point at the tip. Young leaves are scented.

    Flowers: Borne in compact, roughly spherical, reddish purple flower heads, about 2 cm in diameter. Flower heads are overshadowed by a pair of thin, white bracts, the longest one being up to 30 cm long and about twice the size of the other. The delicate bracts flutter in the breeze giving rise to the common names handkerchief, dove and ghost tree.

    Fruits: Hard, dark-green nuts, which turn purple when ripe. Each fruit contains 6–10 seeds. Seeds germinate erratically, and trees may need 10–20 years to flower.

    Dramatic discovery

    Handkerchief tree was first described by French priest and naturalist Father Armand David on a trip to China in 1868; however, it was not introduced to Britain for another 35 years, and then only after a remarkable sequence of events.

    Preserved specimens of Davidia involucrata had been sent to Kew, and nurseryman Henry Veitch expressed an interest in obtaining some seeds from which to grow the tree. In 1899 he commissioned a young Kew-trained botanist called Ernest Wilson to go to China to find the handkerchief tree. This presented a challenge for 22-year-old Wilson, who had never been abroad before and did not speak a word of Chinese.

    With only a hand-drawn map and a few written instructions to guide him, Wilson set off into the remote Yunnan region of China in search of the single known existing specimen. On his way, he escaped local bandits, survived a potentially deadly illness and nearly drowned when his boat overturned in a rocky river. When he finally found the location of the tree, Wilson was mortified to discover that it had been cut down and used to build a house. Fortunately, he went on to find other specimens and was able to send seeds back to England in 1901.

    After spending many years in China, he also found hundreds of other plants and became famous in the process.

    The foremost plant collector of his generation, he is commonly referred to by botanists and horticulturalists as EH ‘Chinese’ Wilson.

    Uses

    Handkerchief tree is grown as an ornamental in parks and gardens.

    Millennium Seed Bank: Seed storage

    The Millennium Seed Bank Partnership aims to save plant life worldwide, focusing on plants under threat and those of most use in the future. Seeds are dried, packaged and stored at a sub-zero temperature in our seed bank vault.

    See Kew’s Seed Information Database for further information on Davidia involucrata seeds

    Cultivation

    Handkerchief tree has been propagated from seed at Kew, sometimes using seed collected from Kew’s own mature specimens. Seeds require both warm and cold stratification in order to germinate. At Kew, this is achieved by placing the seed into polythene bags containing sand or perlite. The bags are kept in a warm place for four to six months, followed by storage in a cold place for three months.

    Seeds are large with a deeply ridged surface and split into orange-like segments on germination. Several of these segments may then grow into a young plant. Germination success is about 50%.

    After germination, seedlings are potted into 13 cm air-pots. Air-pots have bumps and holes in the sides to encourage the roots to grow outwards rather than spiralling. At first, seedlings are placed in an unheated glasshouse before the pots are placed outside and then planted on in the nursery field. After about two years, they are large enough to be planted in the open in their final positions within the Gardens.Handkerchief tree grows well in the sandy soil at Kew. The young plants exhibit healthy dark red shoots and take about ten years to flower, after which flowers are produced in most years. Handkerchief tree is hardy, but in some years flower buds are damaged by late frost.

    This species at Kew

    Davidia involucrata has been grown at Kew since 1903. Perhaps the best example can be seen growing behind the beech clump, close to the Azalea Garden. Handkerchief trees can also be seen behind the Waterlily House. They are typically in flower in May.

    Dried and alcohol-preserved specimens of Davidia involucrata are held in Kew’s Herbarium, where they are available to researchers by appointment.

    Details and images of some of these can be seen online in Kew’s Herbarium Catalogue

    Specimens of fruits and seeds of Davidia involucrata are held in Kew’s Economic Botany Collection, where they are available to researchers by appointment.

    Distribution
    China
    Ecology
    Montane mixed forests, including Quercus-Prunus-Corylus forests.
    Conservation
    Listed as rare in the China Plants Red Data Book (1992).
    Hazards

    None known.

    Images

    Distribution

    Found In:

    China North-Central, China South-Central, China Southeast

    Common Names

    English
    Handkerchief tree

    Davidia involucrata Baill. appears in other Kew resources:

    Date Identified Reference Herbarium Specimen Type Status
    18088.000

    First published in Adansonia 10: 115 (1871)

    Accepted in:

    • [5] Govaerts, R. (2003) World Checklist of Selected Plant Families Database in ACCESS . The Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

    Literature

    • [1] eFloras (2012). Flora of China: Davidia involucrata.
    • [2] World Checklist of Selected Plant Families. (2010). The Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
    • [3] Harrison, C. (2008). Kew’s Big Trees. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
    • [4] Mabberley, D. J. (2008). Mabberley’s Plant-book: a Portable Dictionary of Plants, their Classification and Uses, 3rd Edition. Cambridge University Press, New York.
    • [6] Fu, L. K. (ed.) (1992). China Plants Red Data Book Volume 1: Rare and Endangered Plants. Science Press.

    Sources

    International Plant Names Index
    The International Plant Names Index (2016). Published on the Internet http://www.ipni.org
    [A] © Copyright 2016 International Plant Names Index. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0

    Kew Species Profiles
    Kew Species Profiles
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    [C]

    Kew Library Art and Archives
    [D] Digital Image © Board of Trustees, RBG Kew http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/

    World Checklist of Selected Plant Families
    World Checklist of Selected Plant Families(2016). Published on the Internet http://apps.kew.org/wcsp/
    [E] See http://kew.org/about-kew/website-information/legal-notices/index.htm You may use data on these Terms and Conditions and on further condition that: The data is not used for commercial purposes; You may copy and retain data solely for scholarly, educational or research purposes; You may not publish our data, except for small extracts provided for illustrative purposes and duly acknowledged; You acknowledge the source of the data by the words "With the permission of the Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew" in a position which is reasonably prominent in view of your use of the data; Any other use of data or any other content from this website may only be made with our prior written agreement. http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/3.0
    [F] © Copyright 2016 International Plant Names Index and World Checkist of Selected Plant Families. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0