The Pocket Handkerchief tree is dropping its hankies, like Beatrix Potter’s Mrs Tiggywinkle, at the top of the Wild Garden. This tree, davidia involucrata, is named after the famous Père David. Father Armand David (1826–1900, “Père David”), a French Vincentian missionary and keen naturalist living in China, found it first at 6,500 feet and sent dried specimens to Paris in 1869. Later Ernest Wilson (“Chinese Wilson”) found it again, brought it back and so we have it in our gardens.
It’s called involucrata because it has off-white bracts that fall and look like old-fashioned hankies. These hankies are not petals or sepals but bracts, the difference being bracts protect the flower and curl up round it. The best bract example is those red pointsettias at Christmas whose “petals” are bracts.
Many of the trees and shrubs we have in our gardens are named, like davidia involucrata, after the courageous and intrepid 18th and 19th century plant collectors. For instance we have magnolia wilsonii, rosa “William Lobb”, magnolia delavayi, paeonia delavayi and many, many others.
Looking at the lives of these great contributors to our 21st century gardens I see they mostly died in terrible conditions. Here are a few examples: Francis Masson (1741 – 1805) froze to death; Meriwether Lewis (1774 – 1809) died of malaria, syphilis, gun shot and suicide; Thomas Coulter (1793 – 1843) – ‘His health suffered severely in his travels’; David Douglas (1799 – 1834) – rheumatic fever, blindness, gored to death; John Charles Frémont (1813 – 1890) – frostbite, fevers, dehydration, diarrhoea; Pere David (1826 -1900) – malaria, typhus, pneumonia, poisoning, near drowning; Jean Marie Delavay (1838 – 1895) – bubonic plague; Ernest Wilson (1876 – 1930) – crush injuries after a motor accident.
Let us celebrate these great plant collectors and be grateful for their contributions to our gardens!