Famed director and Oscar winner, Vincente Minnelli, used the cinema to tell heartfelt, realistic and compelling stories. A filmography that would impress the likes of Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese, includes Ziegfeld Follies, Father of the Bride, An American in Paris, Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and Oscar winner Gigi. However, arguably one of his greatest tales took place in the 18th century, on the Scottish Highlands, and was brought to life by Gene Kelly, Van Johnson and Cyd Charisse. Brigadoon is a “time warp fantasy that depicts the ethereal village materializing from the mists only one day each hundred years.” So where am I going with such a sub reference? It has been said that patience is a virtue. Fellow gardeners and plants people know this adage all too well. Some annuals take an entire season to come to fruition. Perennials can come into their own after two or three years. Deciduous shrubs and conifers can develop into handsome specimens after several years. But a tree that has been known to take ten to fifteen years to flower, that’s just crazy! Or is it?
Davidia involucrata, Dove-tree or Handkerchief tree, might not take as long to flower as it does for Brigadoon to reappear, but it sure feels like it. Introduced in 1904 and native to China, this tree will always be remembered once you see it flower. The foliage is a bright green with pronounced veins and a silky underside. Zone hardy from 6 to 8, Davidia, will provide the outline of a broad pyramid reaching heights of twenty to forty feet. Davidia’s bark has cinnamon markings and during its adolescent years is very smooth. Many fellow plants people, when asked to identify my specimen in my yard, came up short and identified it as a Tilia (Linden). Another great tree to be discussed at a later date, Tilia does look similar when young. Chunky, swollen, larger buds have formed on my tree and I can hardy wait for them to explode this spring. Golf ball size fruit mature in the fall and dangle on its winter silhouette. The outside of this golf ball is greenish-tan with red speckles and a very hard, single nut sits inside. But let’s face it… it’s the flower, or bracts, you will remember most. Two huge, creamy-white to pure white bracts of unequal size announce themselves in May, providing an indelible introduction. Set between the bracts is a pincushion of white filaments and red anthers. I find it interesting to note that the lower bract is always larger than the upper one. And these aren’t small bracts as they can range in size from four to eight inches each. Few pests, if any, plague the illustrious Handkerchief tree. Full sun to part shade and well-drained soil are conducive to a Dove trees success.
Three cultivars are noteworthy. Davidia involucrata ‘Sonoma’ is in my front yard for no other reason than it can bloom within the first two or three years. Yes, I’m a bit impatient. ‘Columnaris’ is what you might expect… a columnar Dove tree. Finally, Davidia ‘Crimson Spring’ has crimson-red spring foliage. Introduced by Rippingale Nursery, this cultivar is so new it has even escaped my grasp.
While the wait for Davidia flowers can be long, the anticipation for other plants to flower can prove to be somewhat lamentable or even sickening. The Silversword, Argyroxiphium sandwicense ssp. macrocephalum, a rare member of the sunflower family, found on the slopes of Haleakala National park in Maui, can take decades before developing a flowering stalk. And after it flowers…it dies! And what about the recent reintroduction of Amorphophallus titanum, Corpse or Stink plant, that the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens showcased last August. This stinky, botanical wonder, native to Sumatra, can also exceed a decade before flowering. Following which is rank-smelling foliage that entices bugs to lay their eggs which would typically do so in dead animals. So in retrospect, the prospect of having a beautiful tree with an abundant of attributes contributing to year-round interest that can take just a few years to achieve isn’t so bad after all. Hopefully this article will inspire you to run out and get your hands on a Davidia tree. If you are so inspired, perhaps you can pay homage to Brigadoon by mass planting some Erica (Heather) around your Dove tree, referencing “The Heather On the Hill”, a pastoral ballet in the movie. While the Handkerchief tree can take some time to impress, remember another old adage: Good things come to those who wait.