Sunday, June 29, 2014

Plant story - the handkerchief tree, Davidia involucrata, the Chinese dove tree

Davidia involucrata, Gothenburg, Sweden
handkerchief tree
It is always a treat to actually see some plant I have only read about!

In May 1888, Irish plant-hunter Augustine Henry “was riding his pony through a river valley [in Hubei, China] when he spotted a single, spectacular tree flowering near the base of a large cliff. As he was later to relate, the scene was one of the strangest sights he ever witnessed in China. It seemed as though the branches had been draped in thousands of ghostly-white handkerchiefs.”  (O'Brien p. 79)

Seamus O'Brien's beautiful book, In the Footsteps of Augustine Henry describes European botanists who traveled in China in the late 1800s seeking plants new to western science, especially for a booming European horticultural trade

In 1881, Henry, a young Irish physician, took a post with the Chinese customs service, which at that time was largely staffed by foreigners supplied by Great Britain. In China, Henry developed a passion for plants and plant-collecting, and over the next 20 years, explored and collected around Yichang, Hubei Province at the mouth of the Three Gorges on the Yangtze River, going further afield, for example into Sichuan, wherever he could get time off.  

Davidia involucrata, Gothenburg, Sweden
Davidia involucrata
The handkerchief tree was one of the most important horticultural discoveries late 19th century China. It was first reported to European science by Père Jean Marie Armand David, a French missionary. Père David saw the tree in Sichuan in 1869 and apparently sent notes and a dried specimen to Europe. In 1888, Henry was the second European known to have seen it. 

After Henry's description reached England,  the powerful nurseryman, Sir Henry Veitch, sent E. H. “Chinese” Wilson--who became one of the most productive of the plant-collectors--to China in 1899 with very specific instructions to bring back seeds of the handkerchief tree.  “…do not dissipate time, energy or money on anything else…” Veitch wrote in his contract with Wilson. Wilson eventually succeeded and was responsible for the introduction of the handkerchief tree to Europe (read more on Wilson: Kew, expand and Harvard's Arnold Arboretum).

My tour to Scandinavia this spring took me to the botanical garden in Gothenburg, Sweden (link). 
Gothenburg Botanic Garden
Gothenburg Botanic Garden
It is a fine garden, in fact it has a Michelin 2 star rating overall and a 3 star rating for their Alpine plant collection. 

alpine plants. Gothenburg Botanic Garden, Sweden
alpine plants, pasque flowers
When we arrived, the guide was eager to show us the Chinese dove tree in flower. I got left behind, stopping to look at all sorts of plants. But eventually I reached the spot, and knew immediately that I was looking at Henry’s handkerchief tree.
Davidia involucrata
Davidia involucrata

The handkerchiefs are the bracts around the flower. Inside the two, unequal white bracts, the flower is reddish, small and not very showy. But with the bracts, the tree in flower is very dramatic.

Davidia involucrata
Davidia involucrata
The scientific name, Davidia, honors Père David, the first European to describe the tree. It is the only plant in the genus Davidia, and one of 22 species in the plant family Nyssaceae.

The Chinese name for the tree is dove tree, from the story of a famous Chinese heroine, Wang Zhaojun. She was a real person. She lived from 52 - 19 BC and was a concubine of the Han Dynasty emperor Yuan. When, after years of war, a Hun khan (the Huns are Xiongnu in Chinese, see more: link) asked to marry the Emperor's daughter to cement the peace, Emperor Yuan, who had only one daughter, either called for volunteers from his harem or chose an unattractive woman, depending on the story. Zhaojun was in fact extremely beautiful, one of the "Four Great Beauties" of ancient China but the Emperor, who only looked at a bad painting, didn't know that. (See various versions of the story in references below). In any event, Zhaojun married Huhanye Khan, and after his death married his heir, her stepson, as was Hun custom. Her marriage brought 60 years of peace between the Han and the Huns. (You can visit her tomb in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia: link).

In telling the story, the Chinese most often focused on her sacrifice: for peace, she went far from home to live among barbarians. Many stories portray her as terribly homesick. In one, each day as she traveled farther from home, she sent a letter home by dove, which is a symbol of peace in China as well as the West. The doves dutifully flew many hundred li, landing in the tree that grew outside her family's home, creating the dramatic look of the dove tree in flower. (In the common version of the story on the web, the dove that flew a thousand miles with the letter died upon arriving. Having seen the tree in bloom, one dove would not be enough.)

 What Augustine Henry saw as handkerchiefs, the Chinese saw as doves. 

This final picture is the image that I get from both Augustine Henry's experience discovering the plant and the Chinese legend.  Weep for Wang Zhaojun, writing home from far, far in the north among barbarians.

Davidia involucrata, Gothenburg, Sweden
handkerchief tree; dove tree; Davidia involucrata
The Chinese dove tree can be viewed in many major botanic gardens, shown here in Gothenburg Sweden, but also Kew Royal Botanic Gardens in England, and a number of other gardens across the U.K. (list at end of Wikipedia article), and in North America at the Harvard Arboretum, Morris Arboretum in Philadelphia and the VanDusen Botanic Garden in Vancouver, among others. It can be purchased from various nurseries. Flowering is in May to early June, depending on where it is growing.  I think if you see it, you will recognize it.

Comments and corrections welcome.

Links for more about the Chinese dove tree

More about discovery of the tree by plant-hunters:   Open the Expand buttons to read more about how it was found

Schulhof, R. 2005. The dove tree: a long journey west. Arnoldia. (Journal of the Arnold Arboretum) online at 
the story with different details

Wang Zhaojun in Chinese history and folklore:  Emphasizing sorrow in the legends Political background and the story of the marriage  As told by wikipedia Simple summary, 3 dramatic pictures.

What do the big white bracts do?  

Dove trees in China today: 

O'Brien, S. 2011. In the Footsteps of Augustine Henry. Golden Art Press, Suffolk UK. Print.

Seen on a trip with the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Academic Arrangements Abroad.

Kathy Keeler

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