By Valerie Hill-Archer
Davidia Involucrata is a tree of great beauty. Known also as the ‘Dove Tree’, ‘Ghost Tree’ or ‘Handkerchief Tree’, all being very descriptive of its appearance whilst in flower. Discovered in China in 1869 by, and named after, Père Armond David, a French naturalist and missionary responsible for the introduction of many exotic species to Europe, both plants and animals, including the Giant Panda.
The genus Davidia only contains one species, but there are two varieties: Involucrata and Vilmoriniana. Involucrata refers to the bracks surrounding the flower-head, and Vilmoriniana is named after the French nurseryman, Maurice Lévêque de Vilmorian, who received some of the first seeds to grow. The difference between the two is subtle: Involucrata has short hairs on the undersides of its leaves; Vilmoriniana has none. Introduced to Europe in 1904, the tree was mainly planted in large estates and parklands.
Davidias do not flower young; they are usually at least 10-15 years old before the spectacular display can be seen for the first time. The tree is hardy and quite fast-growing; ultimately reaching a height of 10-15 metres. Gorgeous heart-shaped leaves are bright green. Flowers appear in late Spring/early Summer: red clusters surrounded by a pair of large pure white bracks, which hang down beneath the branches. In the breeze these flutter, giving the impression of huge butterflies or white doves. The flowers later form a fruit, a hard oval ridged nut, about the size of a small conker, which contains seeds. Leaves turn to dark burnished hews before falling. All together a wonderful tree that deserves to be more widely planted. Many fine mature specimens from early plantings can be seen in National Trust gardens and at Wisley and Kew.
Dulwich appeared to have only one tree in a public place, a relatively young specimen yet to flower, in the Picture Gallery’s gardens. Having been made aware of the lack of Davidias in the south of the borough, Southwark Council were happy to plant one for us in a very large, empty tree pit at the junction of Beckwith Road and Half Moon Lane. The tree appears to be about 10-15 years old and is in a space where it should flourish and hopefully flower quite soon. Keep a watch on both these trees and look forward to their first ‘flowerings’ - a sight worth waiting for.