The Handkerchief Tree


Davidia involucrata, the Dove Tree or Handkerchief Tree of China

I don’t remember how we discovered Sonoma Horticultural Nursery. But I think it was the result of going online in an attempt to find the elusive Rhododendron cinnamomeum, the undersides of whose leaves look as though they have received a dense dusting of cinnamon, and which we had been unsuccessful in finding after admiring an older specimen at San Francisco’s Strybing Arboretum. We did find the cinnamomeum then, eventually adopting two slightly different plants, and along with them the marvelous nursery whose name I have given above. It sits on seven and a half acres set in rolling green hills near Sebastopol, Sonoma County, California, and specializes in rhododendrons and azaleas and what they call ‘companion plants’, because they require similiar growing conditions to rhododendrons and azaleas and do well together in the same garden. 

The nursery is located about sixty miles north of San Francisco. There are many thousands of plants to choose from, with some very rare varieties among them, a rhododendron bedecked pond large enough to row a boat around in, and even picnic tables where you can have your lunch. The proprietors live in a house overlooking the pond, at the top of the property. You can sit in the shade of a Victorian-era gazebo and take in the scene. We have nearly always left the nursery with the trunk of our car, and often some of the back seat as well, loaded with plants. At one point I counted about thirty varieties of rhododendron in our garden here in San Francisco, and a large percentage of them came from Sebastopol. We’ve adopted many rare irises, primulas and other smaller plants too. Most have survived.

On a particularly warm late spring day a couple of years ago, our elderly and much beloved Tibetan terrier named Bika accompanied me up to Sebastopol. It wasn’t hot in San Francisco when we left, or I might not have gone, because dogs are not allowed on the grounds, and I knew I’d have to leave little Bika in the car. Which I did, rushing back to check on her every few minutes, taking her out beyond the nursery gate to walk, giving her water, etc. She did fine. And that was the day I discovered the Davidia involucrata, the Dove Tree or Handkerchief Tree of China. They have a 70 year-old specimen there at the nursery, and I had been told over the telephone that its white flower-like leaves were out and fluttering. And looking, from a slight distance, just like white doves or handkerchiefs, a peculiarity which in England gave the tree its name. It grows in front of the nursery owners’ house and is classified as Sonoma County Heritage Tree #20. It’s a most amazing tree. Totally unsuited for our windy cold garden here in the city, or I would have brought a smaller version home. There was one there waiting, in a one gallon pot.

The species came from China to Europe and North America in 1904 and is a popular ornamental in many gardens. The genus name ‘Davidia’ comes from a French missionary and naturalist, Armand David, who lived in China and who was the first westerner to describe another rare Chinese species, the giant panda. Though Armand David was the first to describe the Davidia involucrata in 1905, in the form of a single tree found at over 2000 meters elevation, his specimens were lost in a wreck on some river rapids. It was the Scotsman Augustine Henry, who also found a single tree, though in a different location, who sent the first specimen to Kew Gardens near London. A team was later sent out to find Henry’s tree, only to find that it had been felled for building purposes. But then they found a whole grove of Handkerchief Trees overhanging a sheer precipice. Specimens were taken and, despite another river mishap, arrived safely in England, whence the plant eventually came to America. Our specimen near Sebastopol has quite a history.

We haven’t been back to Sonoma Horticultural Nursery since our much-loved Tibetan passed away last summer. Partly this is because we already have plenty of plants to care for, and partly because we’ve since adopted three lively puppies, making excursions just about anywhere a rather complicated affair. But I suspect it’s also because we associate Sonoma Horticultural Nursery with many years of happy activities with our little Bika. The sight of the nursery might be too much for us right now, since she wouldn’t be along in the car. But I’m looking forward to our eventual return. And perhaps, come to think of it, part of her is there too. Yes, I’ll look for her when we go. In the rows of rhododendrons, in the flowering banks of the pond, in the overarching branches and in the breeze. And, if it’s May, in the fluttering Handkerchief Tree leaves. I’m so glad Bika came along on that bright warm spring day. Perhaps, in some mysterious way, we both knew we’d need to remember. 





2 comments on “The Handkerchief Tree

  1. dappled says:

    Soothing to my soul, reading you tonight. Collect these posts. Publish. YOU deserve wider readership.

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