The Dove tree, Davidia involucrata, is one of the most famous, beloved, revered, and agonized-over trees among serious horticulturists in the temperate areas of the world. Dove tree is famous as the first of many quests of renowned plant collector Ernest 'Chinese' Wilson who collected seeds of this magnificent tree in China in the 1800's. It is beloved and revered for its fabulous, otherworldly display of large white flower bracts that dangle like botanical wings of doves from the branches in spring. It is agonized over for the first decade or so that it takes a young tree to reach sufficient maturity to flower, but no gardener ever regrets that agony when the first flowers finally open.
Davidia involucrata is named for a Frenchman, Armand David, who first found and brought seed back from a tree in China in the early 1800's. The seed from David's collection, however, resulted in only one surviving tree, and so the European plant community could not distribute any other plants. Later in the 1800's, Ernest Wilson, the famous collector affiliated with the Arnold Arboretum, went to China on an expedition devoted to finding the Dove tree. He collected a great deal of seed which was successfully grown into hundreds of seedling trees, many of which were distributed among the horticultural community at that time. This is why any discussion of the Dove tree is more likely to include reference to Wilson rather than the tree's actual western discoverer and honoree by name, Armand David.
The reason these Victorian gentlemen were so obsessed with Davidia is the same reason it drives modern horticulturists to flights of ecstasy (and depths of despair). The tree's small clusters of tiny flowers are wrapped in two large, delicate bracts (in the manner of the flowers of our native Flowering Dogwood Cornus florida). One bract, 2-3" long, drapes from the top of the cluster while a second, 4-7" long, drapes straight down from the bottom. The two bracts together resemble the wings of a dove (albeit somewhat uneven wings) or a folded handkerchief fluttering in the breeze (hence the second common name of 'Handkerchief tree'). A tree with prolific bloom will be covered in these dramatic bracts. The flowers hang from long pedicels and the bracts are easily blown by any light breeze - such a tree looks as if it could sail up off the ground at any moment.
Davidia involucrata is a handsome large tree in its own right reaching 50-60 feet in height, generally with a rounded pyramidal habit and dense branching. The foliage is an attractive, emerald green with large leaves that do not develop any appreciable fall color. There is considerable variation in final mature habit among seedlings - from somewhat squat or broadly rounded to quite upright and conical. There is also considerable variation among seedlings in the size of flower bracts and degree of bloom with the most spectacular individuals producing flowers that cover the tree with 8-10" long bracts, while lesser individuals may show few blooms that have only 4-5" long bracts. Even the most modest seedlings, however, convey the magic of these trees to the garden, so why isn't Dove tree in every landscape? The problem with the display is that trees often take ten years to bloom and then they may develop an alternate year peak bloom pattern, as many crabapples do, so that they are only showy every other spring. It doesn't matter, the display of Davidia is worth waiting for.
Dove tree is fully hardy from the coast to the mountains of the southeast but late frosts may damage flower bracts in the mountains (in the same way that Dogwood bracts are often burned). It has no serious disease or insect problems and it does best in moist, well-drained, slightly acid soils in full sun or light shade. Regular moisture is important for good growth (and good growth is important in order for the tree to reach maturity and produce flowers). Dove tree is generally propagated from seed which has a double dormancy requiring both warm and cold pre-treatments. It can also be rooted under mist from cuttings taken in the summer. There is an especially large-bracted clone from Sonoma, CA that has been successfully grafted as well. The botanical variety, D. involucrata var. vilmoriniana is essentially identical to the species but with smooth undersides on the leaves and somewhat increased cold hardiness.
Davidia involucrata is one of the great horticultural treasures to come out of the hey-day of plant collection expeditions to China. The vagaries and idiosyncrasies of bloom only add to its irresistable appeal - even the unflappable Dr. Michael Dirr reports "...when observed in flower there is an insatiable urge to secure a plant for one's garden...". Dove tree is surprisingly well adapted to most southeastern landscape conditions (with the exception of very stressful, urban sites) where it can become an unforgettable flight of creamy arboreal doves in the spring. No gardener's life is ever quite the same after finding a Dove tree in full bloom, and by the way, after twelve long years of waiting, our Davidia has finally bloomed this spring at The NCSU Arboretum (now the JC Raulston Arboretum).