Plant of the Month

Davidia involucrata var. vilmoriniana - May 2017

Davidia involucrata K Thompson
Davidia involucrata
Marnock Garden (Area K)
©K. Thompson
Davidia involucrata K Keeton
Davidia involucrata
Asia Garden (Area N)
©K. Keeton
Rhododendron orbiculare S Turner
Rhododendron orbiculare
Asia Garden (Area N)
©S. Turner

With so many colourful and interesting trees and shrubs in flower, and all the fresh growth, May is a great time to visit the Gardens. The most spectacular tree of all is Davidia involucrata var. vilmoriniana, completely draped in pale green bracts which become pure white, giving rise to the popular names: handkerchief, ghost or dove tree.

Père David, after whom the tree is named, was a French missionary in China, and the first westerner to find the tree. From Sichuan Province in 1869, he sent herbarium specimens of the flowers to Paris, but no seed. (At the same time he sent the first Giant Panda seen in the west, which arrived 'in good order'!) Thirty years later, Veitch's nursery sent Ernest 'Chinese' Wilson, aged 22, to hunt for the tree, and after travelling many thousands of miles and facing extreme dangers, he found a grove of Davidias and sent large quantities of seed to Veitch's. In 1902 he helped to pot up 13,000 seedlings! But unbeknown to them, French plant hunter Paul Farges had independently found a tree and sent seed to Vilmorin's nursery near Paris. One plant germinated in 1899 and it is from this that 80% of Davidias in cultivation are descended, hence 'var. vilmoriniana'.

Across the path from the west side of the Evolution Garden, at the bottom of the Asia Garden (Area N) the beautiful Rhododendron orbiculare is in flower. (This also originates from Sichuan.) D. involucrata var. vilmoriniana grows a few yards behind this. Another fine specimen of D. involucrata was planted by FOBS in the Marnock Garden (Area K) in December 1994.

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