The Dove tree (Davidia involucrata) is a spectacular tree that you don't see very often, but is not so rare that you won't find one growing in larger collections or in the gardens of the aristocracy-come-National-Trust somewhere within reach. I think I saw my first at Heligan in Cornwall but am now lucky to have two closer to home at Deans Court and Canford School, Wimborne. But I have only once encountered one in a smaller private garden, in Lyndhurst, in the course of my work, but what a surprise and a treat it was. When in flower, they attract the attention of even those that are least interested in trees or horticulture. If you come across one in a public place flowering in May, the chances are that there will be several others looking at it at the same time, and if you eavesdrop on their conversations, you will probably hear them expressing wonderment at its beauty, and puzzlement at what on earth it could be - at least that's been my experience.
To protect the bracts, Dove trees should not be placed in an exposed location. They are also susceptible to drought and can be damaged by a late spring frost. They perform best on a good loamy soil and can reach 15-20m. To get maximum impact from the flowers it really needs to be grown as an isolated specimen in plenty of space so that it can spread to its full potential and you can walk around it, admiring it from all sides. There is a little wait between planting and flowering - often five to ten years. The fruit that develop are round and hard - about the size of a walnut.
As the diversity of China's flora became apparent, it attracted the attention of the Nursery trade and there was considerable interest in obtaining and cultivating the new plants for a lucrative market. The Dove tree itself became almost legendary. Veitch & Sons Nurseries, based in Chelsea and Exeter, were one of the largest in Europe, and in 1899 they dispatched an untraveled 23 year old Ernest 'Chinese' Wilson to China to find the Dove tree. His employer's instruction was to 'stick to the one thing you are after and don't spend time and money wandering about'. Wilson sailed to America and on to Hong Kong where an outbreak of bubonic plague prevented any Chinese from leaving and he had to continue to Hanoi without an interpreter. After another 1000 mile journey into China, he met Scottish plantsman Augustine Henry who gave him directions to the location of a Dove tree. This amounted to a crude map on a scrap of paper depicting an area the size of Britain. On this map he indicated the location of a single tree.
Wilson must have been jubilant, but again his notes are measured, describing the tree as 'at once the most interesting and beautiful of the north temperate flora...their bracts...when stirred by the slightest breeze resemble huge butterflies'. He collected the seeds and returned to England in 1902 where his delighted employers awarded him a gold watch.
Veitch Nurseries were to become more despondent as none of Wilson's seeds were germinating and they were discarded. But this was because they needed up to 18 months of stratification to stimulate growth and seedlings were later found germinating on a compost heap. According to Wilson, 'several hundreds' were raised compared to about 13000 produced at the Vilmorin nursery in France who had received a further consignment of seeds. What's more, a subtle difference between the Veitch and Vilmorin trees was to become apparent. The upper surface of the leaves from Wilson's trees were furnished with silky hairs and the underside felted with a thick grey down (strangely, this hairiness takes about seven years to manifest). The leaves of the Vilmorin trees, on the other hand, remained glabrous, apart from some hairiness of the veins, into maturity. Wilson's form of trees would become known as 'the type' - Davidia involuctrata, and Vilmorin nursery would have only the consolation of introducing a variety of the type - Davidia involucrata var. Vilmoriniana. . Although there is very little difference between them we now know that they differ in chromosome number and there are no hybrid intermediates between the two.
Bean W J Trees and Shrubs Hardy in the British Isles
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Johnson H. 1973; Trees