The Legend of the Dove Tree
Adams County Master Gardener
Perhaps Hanover is the last place one might think to find rare, exotic trees growing, but in the case of one—the Dove tree—there has been one growing and flourishing there for almost 100 years. Found only in the mountains of western China, the Dove tree’s flowers are surrounded by large, whimsical leaves called involucres that lose their photosynthetic capability as they turn from green to white. National Geographic sponsored Zhiduan Chen to study the endangered tree in China.
Chen shared the legend of how it was named: During the Han dynasty, the beautiful Zhaojun Wang married the king of a distant northern tribe. Missing her family, Zhaojun sent a letter home attached to a dove, which flew nonstop for a thousand miles, finally landing and dying on a dove tree branch outside her family’s home. The Dove tree (Davidia involucrata) was renamed to honor the dedicated messenger.
According to another version, the Genus currently contains only one species and was named in honor of PPre Armand David, one of the most prolific of the French missionary plant explorers. These two very different explanations of how this tree got its name show the power of legends and then, coincidentally, the explorer who discovered the tree has the same last name.
The tree was brought to the attention of the Western world by Abbe Armand David (1826-1900), a French missionary in China. In 1862 David was assigned to teach science and natural history classes to children enrolled in the order’s Beijing mission. To aid in accomplishing this task, he started collecting plant and animal specimens. He sent one set to the Natural History Museum in Paris. His contributions were so valuable that the museum persuaded the church officials to free David of his teaching duties so he could travel throughout the newly opened parts of China and collect natural history specimens.
On his second trip to southwestern China between 1868 and 1870, he collected two specimens that made a major impact on the West. Although his discovery of the Dove tree didn’t make as much news as did his introduction of the first living specimen of panda ever seen in the outside world, the Dove tree did excite nurserymen and prompted them to secure the plant.
Although it was David who first described the tree, its introduction to the nursery trade was due to the English nurseryman, Sir Harry Veitch (1840-1924) and the plant collector he hired to seek it out, the famous E. H. “China” Wilson (1876-1930). The location of a dove tree was given to Wilson, and after considerable effort he found the site, only to find a tree stump and a new house built from its logs. Fortunately for gardeners he discovered other trees in bloom about two weeks later and shipped seed back to England in 1901. (Information from North Carolina State University)
The Dove tree is a deciduous member of the Nyssa family and attains a height of 35 feet, with a more or less pyramidal form. Leaves are heart-shaped and coarse textured. The flowers consist of a button-like mass of stamens which are surrounded by a pair of white bracts. The lower bracts can be three inches wide and six inches long with the upper about half that size. When the tree blooms in late spring, it is robed in fluttering white flowers, and it becomes apparent why it has such unusual common names: Dove tree, handkerchief tree and Ghost tree are all common names of Davidia involucrata.
Grown as a specimen, this tree commands attention. The small pom-pom like blooms appear in mid-spring and are held between two uneven, pure white bracts that are up to 15cm (6in) long. The Dove tree is a rare tree in the nursery trade and the landscapes of North America. It grows in Zones 6 to 8. It should be given a little afternoon shade and a rich, high-organic-matter soil that is well drained but kept more on the moist side than the dry side. It is slow to flower, usually taking at least 15 years from seed. It sometimes shows alternate year flowering; but when it does bloom, its beauty and rarity are worth the trouble it takes to grow. Although tolerant of some pruning, Davidia cannot be successfully maintained at a reduced size.
I personally do not know of any other Dove tree in the Hanover area; possibly there is someone in our area who has one and can share information. This tree was planted in the Myers Arboretum probably between 1915 and 1925 by C.N. Myers who built the Myers Mansion around 1912. He was very interested in trees throughout his lifetime and planted many unusual trees on the Myers property on the corner of Baltimore and Hanover Streets in Hanover and in the Myers Arboretum which now belongs to the Borough of Hanover. The Arboretum is on the alley across from what is now named the Warehime-Myers Mansion, a historic property that belongs to the Hanover Area Historical Society.
I hope after learning a bit about the unique Dove tree that you will be interested in observing it and all the historic trees that are on the HAHS property and the Myers Arboretum. Many of these trees are almost 100 years old and include many varieties of oak and beech trees.
The Society will be conducting a Spring Tree Walk on Sunday, May 17, between 1 and 3 p.m. or the rain date of Saturday, May 23. Our Spring Walk will feature the flowering trees on the property: flowering dogwood, Chinese fringe tree, Tulip tree, and, of course, the Dove tree. This tour will be conducted by members of the HAHS and is open to the public as well as members of the HAHS.
Read other articles on trees