The Handkerchief Tree

It is easy in Regent’s Park simply to be overwhelmed by the great green spaces, the reflective stretches of water, brilliantly coloured roses and shaded avenues. But it is also worthwhile looking closely at individual plants and trees and exploring a little about its history. Boring? Not at all.

Take the handkerchief tree. Also known as the dove or ghost tree, it can be found in Queen Mary’s Gardens near the west end of the foot bridge by the reeds which close off the water at the northern end. Its white flower or bract is very distinctive and was first imported from China in the late nineteenth century. This was an extraordinary era when enthusiastic specialists set sail to explore wild areas and return with seeds with which later to tempt gardeners in Europe.

First discovered by a French missionary and naturalist, Père Armand David, (hence its Latin name Davidia involucrata), the handkerchief tree was brought to England by a 23-year-old plant hunter, who had been working at Kew Botanical Gardens and was sponsored by a commercial nursery, which had done well by introducing new unusual species to this increasingly popular activity. The young man, Ernest Henry Wilson, spent the best part of a year getting to the remote destination, only to find the original single tree had been cut down. Nevertheless, he carried on finding another example of the tree on a cliff edge, having travelled by mule and camped in very rough mountainous country. But that was not the end of his travails. The ship on which he journeyed home was wrecked – yet somehow he held onto the seeds and completed the expedition successfully.

E.H. Wilson, also known as Chinese Wilson, went on to travel extensively in Asia, Africa and Australasia, write books and take photographs and introduced the kiwi fruit. On one trip his leg was badly damaged by a cascade of stones and had to be set with the tripod of his camera. He became keeper of the Arnold Arboretum near Boston but was killed in a car accident in 1930. Some sixty species of Chinese plants bear his name.


back to Trees