Photo: Myrabella / Wikimedia Commons
Davidia involucrata in bloom
To begin with, the history of the introduction of Davidia involucrata is arguably as difficult as the tree is beautiful. Commonly known in England as the Handkerchief tree, it was first discovered for the western world by the French Missionary Father Armand David (1826–1900). As a biologist from University of Espelette, Père David entered and became ordained through the Congregatio Missionis, a Roman Catholic society of apostolic life of priests and brothers founded by Vincent de Paul.

Father Armand David
Shortly after his ordination the Mission sent him to Beijing where on his own accord began to create a selection of Zoological and botanical material for a Museum of Natural History. However at the request of the French Government be began to send specimens back to the Jardin des Plantes, Paris - the main botanical garden in France, of which the best of the specimens caused quite a stir. To gain greater knowledge the Jardin des Plantes commissioned Père David to send back further plant collections from China.

In 1869 Père David discovered a single specimen of Davidia involucrata growing at over 2,000 metres altitude (a height usually beyond the treeline), and later sent dried specimens to Paris in 1871. The unique and unusual pendulous white blooms caused quite a sensation and after further investigation it was declared both a new species and genus, and was subsequently named in honour of Father Armand David.

News of this exotic new tree reached London and inevitably the ears of Sir Harry Veitch of Veitch Nursery, Chelsea, but while the whereabouts of Davidia involucrata were unknown, his passion to find and retrieve specimens for his nursery had been ignited.

Move forward 10 years to 1881 and still nothing further had been heard regarding Davidia involucrata. However all that was to change when Irish plant hunter Augustine Henry (who at the time was working for the Imperial Customs Service in Shanghai as Assistant Medical Officer and Customs Assistant) began sending back specimens to Royal Kew gardens. Like Père David before him, Henry found a single tree, this time in the Yangtse Ichang gorges, and sent the first dried specimens back to Kew Gardens.

Black and White image of Ernest Henry "Chinese" Wilson
Ernest Henry "Chinese" Wilson
Sixteen years later in 1897,  arguably the most famous of all plant hunters Ernest Henry "Chinese" Wilson began work at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. He had already began to make a name for himself by winning the the Hooker Prize for an essay on conifers and quickly came to the attention of Sir Harry Veitch who offered him a position as Chinese plant collector. By now Davidia involucrata had become legendary and Sir Harry who were eager above all to retrieve live examples from which to propagate. Sir Harry had one piece of clear advice for Wilson

"Stick to the one thing you are after, and don't spend time and money wandering about"

With hundreds of plant hunters on his books and thousands of Chinese specimens returning to the Veitch nursery every year Sir Harry believed that probably every worthwhile plant in China had been introduced to Europe.

image of Handkerchief tree or Dove tree
Handkerchief tree or Dove tree
So Wilson travelled west towards China, following Augustine Henry to Simao where he was investigating plants used in Chinese medicine. Henry detailed the area where he has seen his specimen 12 years earlier but as luck would have it the tree had been recently cut down for building purposes by the time Wilson reached it.

Completely ignoring the advice of Sir Harry, Wilson managed to rediscover the specimens originally found by Père David a staggering 600 km away back in Yichang, Hubei. There he found a grove of the trees overhanging a sheer drop from which he collected his fabled specimens. Wilson collected for a further two years in Hubei Province before returning to England in April 1902. Upon his return Wilson had his boat wrecked, but despite this managed to save his Davidia specimens and finally hand this precious cargo to Sir Harry Veitch. The rest is history.

Main image - Myrabella / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0
Image of Armand David - By "F.Berillon, Bayonne". Upload, stitch and restoration by Jebulon - Bibliothèque nationale de France, Public Domain,
By North Met Pit - Sheringham Park visitor centre, Public Domain,