From China to Fota – The Handkerchief Tree

From China to Fota – The Handkerchief Tree

Celebrating National Tree Week, March 5th – 12th. Part 1 

“A forest is the finest thing in the world: it is the expression of nature in the highest form”  Augustine Henry

It’s a long way from China to Fota but the story of how these two seed pods came to drop on the Fota lawn brings us from one continent to another. These pods may look like large acorns or small apples but they contain the seeds for Davidia involucrata, otherwise known as the Handkerchief Tree. At the moment they hang from Fota’s impressive old specimen, delicately suspended and ready to fall. On the ground, small creatures have been feeding on these soft fruits, leaving behind a scattering of oval seeds like the ones collected by Ernest Wilson in China in 1901. Wilson, who was only 22 and didn’t speak Chinese, had to contend with local bandits, a near drowning and severe illness before he fulfilled his task of sending the seeds back to the UK. But the story doesn’t just begin there and along the way we meet an Irishman.

Wilson, commonly referred to as  EH “Chinese” Wilson by horticulturists, was sent to China by Henry Veitch. Sir Harry James Veitch was a well-known  plantsman, who ran the family nursery called James Veitch and Sons in Chelsea. In 1912 he was instrumental in bringing the Royal International Horticultural Exhibition to the Chelsea venue where it continues today as the Chelsea Flower Show. But more importantly for us, he was famous for commissioning many plant collectors to travel to different parts of the world to harvest rare specimens for his plant nursery. 


Sir Harry Veitch

But before Veitch sent Wilson to China and Tibet, our story goes further back to a French priest and naturalist called Père Jean Marie Armand David  and to an Irish plantsman  called Augustine Henry. Père David (for whom the tree is named) was the first westerner to find Davidia involucrata in Sichuan in 1869 and he sent notes and a dried specimen back to Europe. Pere David was a French Catholic missionary who was also a botanist and zoologist.After his ordination in 1862 he was sent to China where he performed his duties and also managed to collect a huge number of plant specimens, reptiles, moths, insects, animals and fish. 



Augustine Henry

In 1881, Augustine Henry, an Irish physician, took a job in the Chinese customs service. Over the next 20 years he became interested in horticulture and collected plants from all over China.  In his book,  In the Footsteps of Augustine Henry, Seamus O’Brien quotes from Henry’s diaries describing the moment in Hubei when Henry first saw what the Chinese call the Dove Tree, when the Irishman was “riding his pony through a river valley  when he spotted a single, spectacular tree flowering near the base of a large cliff. As he was later to relate, the scene was one of the strangest sights he ever witnessed in China. It seemed as though the branches had been draped in thousands of ghostly, white handkerchiefs.” It was May, 1888 and Henry was the second westerner to see this tree. In 1889, a specimen from Henry was received at Kew Gardens.


Image from Kew’s Herbarium Catalogue, dated 1898

                                                                        Augustine Henry was born in Dundee in Scotland but soon after his birth his family moved to Co. Tyrone. Henry started out as an amateur plant collector, working in his spare time from his Civil Service job in a Chinese Customs post. But he was enthusiastic to learn and over the years became more knowledgeable and serious about his collecting. He dealt with many nursery owners who were looking for seed supplies from exotic places and supplied Kew with a huge number of specimens. It’s estimated that while in China – at Yichang, in Hainan, in Taiwan, at Mengsi and Simao – Henry and his native helpers acquired over 15,800 collection numbers. As there were an average of 10 specimens in each there must have been a total of almost 160,000 herbarium specimens. Henry collected probably over 5000 species between 1884 and 1900.

It’s important to remember that travelling in China or Taiwan at this time was difficult, slow and potentially dangerous. In 1898 Augustine Henry took up his last assignment at a Customs post in Simao. The journey there from Mengsi took 18 days by foot and mule. It was here in Simao that Henry met EH “Chinese” Wilson, on his expedition to collect seeds for the Veitch nursery. Wilson had been instructed by Veitch to meet Henry with a view to getting the seeds of Davidia involucrata. Wilson was an admirer of Augustine Henry and is reported to have said that “no one in any age has contributed more to the knowledge of Chinese plants than this scholarly Irishman”. By now Henry was well-known for his plant work and during his home leave in 1890, on a visit to Kew Gardens, he was greeted as a celebrity. After all he was the man who had in 1886 sent “one of the most important plant collections ever received from the centre of China”.

Wilson stayed with Henry for several weeks in Simao. Though they parted company soon after this, they remained friends for life. Henry gave Wilson a sketched map of where the Handkerchief Tree was located and the young Englishman set out to collect the much-wanted specimens. 

Wilson was young and enthusiastic in his task and was described by Henry as “a self-made man, (who) knows botany thoroughly, is young and will get on. He is also even-tempered and level-headed, the main thing for travelling and working in China.” Henry considered this important as it was necessary to get on with the locals on whom plant collectors depended. The qualities of being “level-headed”, “even-tempered” and hardy were important and Veitch himself wrote of another of his collectors, Charles Meries, that he lacked staying power and did not get on well with the local Chinese, who resented his “difficile” nature and destroyed his collections.

EH “Chinese” Wilson

Ernest Wilson had left school early (perhaps this accounts for Henry’s description of him as a “self-made man”) and worked as an apprentice gardener in Birmingham Botanical Gardens, while studying botany at night in the local technical school. He eventually went to Kew in 1897 where he excelled in his work. He then moved to work for James Veitch and Sons as a plant collector.(By now, Veitch employed about a dozen plant collectors). After only 6 months here, he set off for China with the specific instructions from his employer to  “Stick to the one thing you are after and don’t spend time and money wandering about. Probably every worthwhile plant in China has now been introduced to Europe.” He landed first in the USA where he stayed for 5 days in the Arnold Arboretum in Boston, studying the technique of how to ship plants or seeds safely without damage.He crossed the US by train and sailed from San Fransisco to Hong Kong and travelled on to Simao in Yunan Provence to meet with Henry.

When Henry and Wilson left Simao, they travelled together back to Mengsi, where Henry returned to his Customs post and Wilson set off with his map. When he got to the spot Henry had indicated, he discovered on arrival that the tree in question had been cut down to provide wood for building! However, Henry had advised him that there would be other Davidia trees in the area. So he got the seeds and sent them back to England where they germinated and were planted, giving us most of the Handkerchief trees we see today in the UK and Ireland. 

So the tree which Père Jean Marie Armand David first saw in China was planted 35 years later in the UK.  Wilson stayed in China for another 2 years returning to England in 1902. Throughout his life he travelled again to China, Japan, Taiwan and Korea, collecting more specimens, many of which are called after him.

The Handkerchief Tree is called The Dove Tree in China. The legend associated with it tells the story of Wang Zhaojun. She was a real person, living from 52 to 19 BC. To promote peace she agreed to pretend to be Emperor Yuan’s only daughter, (from whom he didn’t want to be parted), and to marry an enemy Khan. This marriage brought about many years of peace. The story related to the tree dwells on Zhaojun’s life in the far away country of Mongolia, where she was homesick and lonely. On the journey to her new country, each day she sent a letter home by dove. Each dove landed on a tree outside her house. And so the Dove/Handkerchief tree came to symbol sacrifice and peace. 

Davidia involucrata grows to be 20m tall, has dark heart-shaped leaves, with the young leaves scented. The fruit contains the seeds, typically 5-6 seeds per pod, which germinate only sporadically, with a 50 per cent success rate.  Once grown, they may take between 10 – 20 years to produce their spectacular flowers. They are hardy trees but flowers may be damaged by late frost.


Davidia involucrata at Fota House and Gardens 

We’ll have to wait until May to see Fota’s Handkerchief tree flower. But even in Winter there’s much to admire about this tree – the weathered bark, strong trunk and branches and the delicately suspended smooth pods, ready to fall in nature’s enduring cycle of life.

As Augustine Henry himself said, “Davidia is wonderful”. 


Pods on the Fota tree  








More information about Tree Week on 

References and credits:

O’Brien, S. 2011. In the Footsteps of Augustine Henry. Golden Art Press, Suffolk UK. Print