The Handkerchief Tree

To most of us trees have a character of their own. We all see them all the time but for the most part we do not take much note of them. Many are unnoticeable for most of the time, some are very distinctive for a while and some are imposing on the eye all the time. A few seem to be spectacular for a very brief seasonal period. The Magnolia must be of this ilk as it’s widely planted but inconspicuous for most of the year but when it flowers it is the star turn in every respect.

A hidden (to me at least) gem is the Handkerchief Tree. When I first heard about this one I simply did not believe there was such a thing. I should have known better as when it comes to plants my wife is always right.

The pictures I have attached are from two such trees being a commemorative planting by the Queen and Prince Philip no less in the 1950’s. They stand outside St Paul’s church in Harlow. Harlow was one of the first new towns to be built after WW2. While the architecture of Harlow has not been treated well by the last 70 years or so these two trees certainly have. They have flourished, maintained and retained their glorious flowering show. This happens around May.

The tree is technically in the Tupelo family (related to the Dogwoods) and is more properly Davidia involucrata or the Dove-tree or Ghost-Tree. It originated in China and came to this country around 1904. It is (so it says in my book) widely planted in gardens. The spectacular white handkerchiefs are two huge bracts surrounding the small flowers. It makes us wait around 20 years before it starts to show off it’s loading of hankies. For most of the year it acts as a shrinking violet and is unobtrusive BUT when it flowers it is truly spectacular.

It is not a large tree but I’m curious to know if anyone has been fortunate to come across it and carve it? Maybe even a handkerchief at that? If so I would love to see the result.

by Ken Veal.

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