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Davidia involucrata ‘Birr Gold’ – “The Handkerchief Tree”

Seamus O’Driscoll’s Garden Centre on the Mill Road, here in Thurles, Co. Tipperary, is as far as you need to travel over the next week or so, should you be on the lookout for something extremely rare and truly exotic.

By rare and exotic, I refer in particular to “The Handkerchief Tree” (Davidia involucrata ‘Birr Gold’) just one of the many rare trees, shrubs and plants located at this ‘Mecca’ of garden cultivation and management; all specimens which are strikingly unusual and delightfully strange, both in visual effect and in appearance.

Pictures Left to Right: (1) French Lazarist missionary Catholic priest, zoologist, botanist and naturalist, Fr. Armand David, (1826 to 1900); (2) Davidia involucrata (The Handkerchief tree); (3) Kew Garden’s trained gardener, botanist, plant collector / hunter & explorer Ernest Henry Wilson, (“Chinese” Wilson – 1876 to 1930).

The tree Davidia involucrata, was first named after French Lazarist missionary, Roman Catholic priest (Lazarist – A Catholic organization founded in 1625, at the priory of St Lazare in Paris, by St. Vincent de Paul, latter renowned for his compassion, humility and generosity to those found impoverished) and naturalist Fr. Armand David, who first described it, and who coincidently was also the first westerner to describe the Giant Panda Bear, native to south central China.

This deciduous Chinese native ‘Handkerchief Tree’  is also referred to as the ‘Dove Tree’; which can grow up to 20 metres in height (or 66 ft.) and is best acknowledged for its striking display of floral bracts in late spring. Its small, reddish purple flower heads surrounded by a pair of large, white bracts, same up to 30cms (1 ft) in length, said to resemble dangling handkerchiefs or doves perched on its branches. Foliage here is vivid green, heart shaped leaves with serrated edges and with fine points developed at each tip. Here also you will find that the very young leaves are strongly scented.

Henry Veitch (1840 – 1924)

The obituary of Henry Veitch, published in the Gardeners’ Chronicle on 12th July 1924 stated; “Sir Harry Veitch may be regarded as the most outstanding figure in contemporary horticulture, and during the last fifty years no one has exercised so great an influence on all things pertaining to gardening”.

It took some 35 years, following Fr. Armand David’s formal description given back in 1868, before the ‘Handkerchief Tree’ eventually arrived into Britain. While preserved specimens of Davidia involucrata had been sent to Kew Gardens, it was the eminent English horticulturist and nurseryman, Sir Henry Veitch, (Latter instrumental in establishing the now famous Chelsea Flower Show), who insisted on obtaining some seeds from which to propagate the tree.  In 1899 he commissioned a bright young prize-winning botanist, Ernest Wilson, to travel to China to locate the ‘Handkerchief Tree’. This proposed trip presented something of a challenge for the 22-year-old Wilson, who had had never travelled abroad previously and did not speak one solitary word of the Chinese language.

Nevertheless, following some six months stay at Veitch’s Coombe Woods Nursery, Wilson then travelled west towards China, staying for five days at the Arnold Arboretum in Boston, Massachusetts. Here he studied identified and established techniques involving the shipping of seeds and plants, without causing damage, before continuing to cross the United States by train; eventually sailing from San Francisco, to reach Hong Kong in June of 1899.

With difficulty, he eventually located a specimen of ‘Handkerchief Tree’ in Yichang city, in the western Hubei province of China. It was from this same first trip that Wilson would also introduce to Britain ‘Actinidia deliciosa’, or the Chinese gooseberry, better known today to supermarket shoppers as Kiwifruit.

Irish Botanist and Sinologist, Professor Dr. Augustine Henry (1857 to 1930).

Just a 53 minute drive, travelling north some 55.7 km via the N62, we reach the town of Birr in Co. Offaly. Here in the formal garden at Birr Castle, a “Handkerchief Tree” grew, before its death in 1980. This was propagated by Hillier’s Nursery in Ampfield, Hampshire and young plants were, I believe, planted at Birr Castle.

It is believed that the cultivar that resulted in ‘Birr Gold’ may have been a seedling from one of the original introduced here into Ireland. Certainly, Professor Dr. Augustine Henry; latter an Irish Botanist and Sinologist (Sinologist meaning person with knowledge pertaining to all things Chinese including language, literature, culture and history), further prompted the sending of Ernest Wilson to China with secret instructions to locate the ‘Handkerchief Tree’.

If you are around Thurles in the coming days, why not find your way to O’Driscoll’s Garden Centre, Mill Road, to view “up close and personal”, this rare and unusual tree, and marvel, while recognising the sheer beauty, complexity and equilibrium that is openly displayed to our world, courtesy of Mother Earth.

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2 comments to Davidia involucrata ‘Birr Gold’ – “The Handkerchief Tree”

  • Vincent Barber

    George and Seamus I have set in train, through contacts in my home town of Birr, as to where the seedlings came from for the tree that is now for sale and also to be viewed in O’Driscoll’s Garden Centre.

  • George Willoughby

    Vincent we look forward to hearing any further updates.

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