May 12, 2013

Ghost Trees and Rarities

The Ghost Tree, or Fabled Dove Tree, Davidia involucrata surprised me this spring, by finally blooming after 15 years.
Perhaps in no other time than that brief moment in May, do I feel as if I live and garden in a true plant collectors garden. Of course, this is certainly more of a plant collectors garden than it is any other sort of garden, but more often then not, to the 'plant collector' himself, the garden can feel a bit too familiar, too predictable, or even - dare I say - ordinary. I don't know about you, but I often forget about plants which I have collected and planted each year, they surprise me "Oh, that's where I planted that!", or "I totally forgot about that tree seedling!". Sometimes, I even scream out with surprise - as if I saw a rare bird ( well, not rare, but I did see a Baltimore Oriole flitting about on the edge of the woods with his bright, orange finest of feathers! He just flew in this week as our spring migration continues, along with my first catbird and house wren).

Gardening books often say that the Davidia looks like it has a bunch of handkerchiefs hanging in it. OK, it's a stretch, but sure is different than most other trees in the garden right now.
 The biggest surprise this week was something I have been waiting for - for 16 years - the blooming of our Davidia involucrata, or The Fabled Dove Tree ( or Hankerchief Tree if you like silly names).  A true Zone 7 tree, I took a chance in our Zone 5 garden, and planted a young tree 16 years ago. Each year, hoping to see it bloom with it's distinctive white bracts fluttering in the wind on a May day - but I just about gave up, as the tree is now 30 feet tall, and seemed to suffer with nips of frost every other spring. This year, it finally bloomed ( the flowers are actually hidden underneath the white handkerchief-like bracts, looking not unlike blackberries. Rejoice! Introduced from China

Davidia trees are no longer 'rare', but they are something you would need to order online from a specialist nursery, as they are still uncommon. The Davidia is one of those plants with a good story behind it. First described in 1869 it was named after a French missionary, Armand David. Scottish plant hunter Augustine Henry found only a single tree when exploring in China near the end of the nineteenth century, and sent a collected, dried specimen to Kew. In the early part of the 20th Century plant collector Earnest Henry Wilson traveled through China in search for the single tree that Henry found, but discovered that it had been cut down for construction material.  He later found a grove of trees, but they were growing on a steep cliff. Eventually, after a boat disaster, and disease, he was able to collect a few specimens to bring back to England.

There are many special selections of  Japanese maples ( Acer palmatum) but few offer such a spectacular display as Acer palmatum 'Ukigumo' does. The Japanese call this selection  the 'floating clouds' maple, and  it's easy to see why. 

The slow growing Acer palmatum  'Ukigumo'  Japanese Maple takes nearly 20 years before it starts to  mature and spread its wings. Only then, will you appreciate its nuanced magical beauty. This specimen, planted near our back window over-looking the garden, is illuminated at night with spot lights
placed underneath below. At night, it's spectacular, but even on a rainy spring day like today, it glows as if illuminated.

Acer palmatum ‘Ukigumo’ 

Small trees like Japanese Maples create the perfect shade for many choice woodland collector plants.
Here, my Podophyllum collection grows in the leaf duff and compost under a half-moon maple.

Close-up images in plant catalogs might lead you to believe that these Japanese Maples with variegated foliage
could look sickly or ill, but in the garden, that is not the case - the overall form and color transforms
into a tiered,  elegant structure which enhances any small garden.

Another small tree is all about tiers - check out the layered effect created by this variegated Wedding Cake  Dogwood, Cornus controversia var. variegata. 

Golden trees virtually glow in the spring garden. This Golden Locust, Robinia pseudoacacia 'Frisia'
keeps its bright, chartreuse foliage right until fall.


  1. You lucky ducky! I got mine from Ellen Hornig about 18 years ago, and it still hasn't bloomed yet. But then, they are famous for being VERY slow to bloom from seed. I keep telling my wife we cannot even consider moving until it blooms.

  2. What an interesting tree! I love learning about new (to me) things and the background story was most interesting.

  3. I know, Mike....right? When Halda was staying here he confirmed that it might take 15 years to bloom or more. I thought when I purchased mine that they told me that they were grafted, and already blooming in their containers in Oregon. So much for that!

  4. Dove Trees are beautiful. I haven't planted one because of the time it takes to bloom. Of course, if I had planted one a decade ago when I purchased my house I might have blooms now, too!

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