Deciduous tree with sights for all seasons

Davidia involucrata. PHOTO: LINDA ROBERTSON
Davidia involucrata. PHOTO: LINDA ROBERTSON
This deciduous tree is usually singled out for admiration due to large, white, petal-like bracts that hang down over the round cluster of contrasting reddish anthers below.

Davidia involucrata bracts last from mid-October to mid-November and it is these that inspire the common names handkerchief tree, dove tree or even ghost tree.

After the bracts fall away the long-lasting fruit starts to develop. By this time of year they are obvious against the stark outline of deciduous branches and stand out as greenish-brown ovoids hanging from 5cm-7cm stalks like little golf balls. At their centre is a hard nut surrounded by a layer of starchy flesh that the birds seek out for mid-winter sustenance.

Given deep fertile garden soil these trees can grow to 20m or more in cultivation, just as they do in their wild habitat of South West China’s woodlands. The one in the northwest corner of the azalea garden in Dunedin Botanic Garden is about 10m and is in fact a basal sucker of its parent tree that was dying back and cut out about 25 years ago. That left the young sapling-like off-shoot to carry on the succession. It has now grown into the typical Davidia pyramidal form.

Davidia take about 10 years to flower from seed but the long wait can be avoided by buying plants grown from mature wood grafted on to a rootstock.

The distinctive fruit will remain until mid to late July but that can depend on how hungry the birds are.

 - Garden Life is produced by Dunedin Botanic Garden. For further information contact Doug Thomson.

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