Wednesday 24 January 2018

On the wings of the snow-white dove tree

TO SEE the dove tree or handkerchief tree in flower is to instantly understand where this beautiful tree got its common names. The flowers hang like a handkerchief held at one corner, dangling from the branches. The dove tree name is more fanciful but the flowers do appear a bit like a dove's wings, being pure white, almost crystalline.

It also revels in the name of ghost tree, the ghost flowers long gone by this time of year as it flowers in May. The flowers are really bracts, which are leaf-like appendages, not true petals. Like most bracts, these start out green and clear out the green colour as the flowers develop to white.

There are two bracts at each flower, one larger than the other. The entire flower assembly dangles at the end of a drooping flower stalk. Just at the end of the flower stalk is the true flower, a rounded cluster of short red and purple male flowers and a single female flower at the centre. Later, this female flower develops into a rounded fruit hanging at the end of the flower stalk, and all the other flower parts are shed as soon as pollination has taken place.

Most dove trees set some seeds, which are evident on the trees now. There has been a relatively good set of fruit this year and they are quite decorative hanging along the branches. They are hard to see at first but more revealed now as the leaves of this deciduous tree fall off.

The leaves are of a handsome pointed oval shape and hang down along the branches, quite like those of a lime tree.

The dove tree foliage changes to pretty shades of yellow, sometimes with a touch of brown on the side which the sunlight hits. The leaves make a layer of yellow on the ground underneath, a temporary beauty.

The dove tree, Davidia involucrata, is native to China and, unusually, it is the only species in its genus.

Indeed, botanists find it difficult to categorise, sometimes placing it in the dogwood family, or in the tupelo family, or creating its own single-species family.

It gets the name from Pere David, a French missionary to China who was a very successful plant collector.

The handkerchief tree is capable of reaching 15m, though usually a good deal less, but it is a plant for medium to large gardens and does not look well squeezed into a small space.

If grown from seed, the trees can take 10 years or more to flower, but it can be grown from cuttings, too.

The seed is sown fresh in autumn and can take two years to sprout, and another 10 years to flower -- so this is a plant that demands patience!

Sunday Independent

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