UACES Facebook Handkerchief Tree (Dove Tree)

Handkerchief Tree (Dove Tree)

Plant of the Week

Dove Tree, Handkerchief Tree
Latin: Davidia involucrata

Picture closeup of Dove Tree leaves.

Some people are afflicted with a keen interest in natural history and those with a botanical leaning, are attracted to all manner of new and unusual plants. Some of us are doubly afflicted -- not only having interest in plants but we also have the collecting disability. When a new plant comes along, it must be secured. Such was the case with the dove tree when the English nurseryman, Sir Harry Veitch (1840-1924) learned of its existence in Western China.

The dove tree is a deciduous member of the nyssa family and attains a height of 35 feet, with a more or less pyramidal form. Leaves are heart-shaped and coarse textured. The flowers consist of a button-like mass of stamens which are surrounded by a pair of white bracts. The lower bracts can be three inches wide and six inches long with the upper about half that size. When the trees bloom in late spring it is robed in fluttering white flowers and it becomes apparent why it has such unusual common names.

The tree was brought to the attention of the Western world by Abbe Armand David (1826 1900), a French missionary in China. In 1862 David was assigned to teach science and natural history classes to children enrolled in the order’s Beijing mission.

To aid in accomplishing this task he started collecting plant and animal specimens. He sent one set to the Natural History Museum in Paris.

His contributions were so valuable that the museum persuaded the church officials to free David of his teaching duties so he could travel throughout the newly opened parts of China and collect natural history specimens.

On his second trip to southwestern China between 1868 and 1870, he collected two specimens that made a major impact on the West. Although his discovery of the dove tree didn’t make as much news as did his introduction of the first living specimen of panda ever seen in the outside world, the dove tree did excite nurserymen and prompted them to secure the plant.

Although it was David who first described the tree, its introduction to the nursery trade was due to Veitch and the plant collector he hired to seek it out, the famous E. H. "China" Wilson (1876-1930).

The location of a dove tree was given to Wilson, and after considerable effort he found the tree only to find a stump and a new house built from its logs. Fortunately for gardeners he discovered other trees in bloom about two weeks later and shipped seed back to England in 1901.

The dove tree is a rare tree in the nursery trade and landscapes of North America. It grows in Zones 6 to 8 and will grow throughout Arkansas, yet I know of no flowering size trees in the state. It should be given a little afternoon shade and a rich, high organic matter soil that is well drained but kept more on the moist side than the dry side. It is slow to flower, usually taking at least 15 years from seed. It sometimes shows alternate year flowering, but when it does bloom its beauty and rarity is worth the trouble it takes to grow.

By: Gerald Klingaman, retired
Extension Horticulturist - Ornamentals
Extension News - June 4, 1999


The University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture does not maintain lists of retail outlets where these plants can be purchased. Please check your local nursery or other retail outlets to ask about the availability of these plants for your growing area.