A lady like landscapes,
wearing time like an amusing shawl
thrown over her shoulders
by a friend at the bazaar:
Every once in a while she turns in it
just like a little girl,
this way and then that:…
– James Baldwin
In May you may marvel at the beloved, shawl-like flowers of the Dove tree, Davidia involucrata. These flowers’ numerous reproductive stamens and pistils are arranged in tight, quarter-sized, red-colored, clusters.
Each flower head is wrapped from their base with a pair of white, delicate, unequal bracts. One bract, two-to-three inches-long , drapes over the small flower cluster, and a second, larger bract, seven-inches-long by four- inches-wide, hangs straight down. This showy floral display lasts for two weeks, and on a breezy day, the bracts can undulate like the whirl of a flamenco skirt.
Native to central China, this is a tree wrapped with scientific collecting legacies. The genus Davidia is named for Father Armand David (1826-1900), a French, Lazarist missionary. David, in China from 1862-1873, was an enthusiastic naturalist who first described for western science hundreds of animals, birds, plants, and insects. In addition to first documenting the Dove tree, among many other plants, he was the first westerner to describe the giant panda.
Another notable associated with the history of this tree is Augustine Henry (1857-1930), employed in China as a British Customs medical officer. Henry collected, prepared, and sent hundreds of dried plants, as herbarium sheets, including the Dove tree, to the Royal Botanic Garden in Kew. Many have heard of the face that launched a thousand ships, well it was one of Henry’s herbarium sheets of the Dove tree that launched the career of a thousand plants. That was when Ernest Henry Wilson (1876-1930), a young English plantsman of twenty-three, in 1899 , was hired to bring back to England seeds of the Dove tree, for the prestigious Royal Exotic Nursery, of James Veitch & Sons, in Chelsea. Wilson accomplished this, and more, on his first, three-year-long, plant expedition to remote regions of China.
Wilson’s later, greater accomplishments of introducing over 1000 new Asian plant types to western horticulture during succeeding expeditions have been widely recounted. This tree which may grow 30 to 40 feet tall, has broad-ovate, simple, leaves, three-to-five inches-long. It often exhibits an alternate year pattern of heavy flowering.
*This Horticulture Highlight was originally published in the May 2011 issue of the Friends of Mount Auburn electronic newsletter.