How to grow and care for handkerchief tree

Handkerchief tree. Getty Images

Handkerchief tree (Davidia involucrata) is a rare but highly sought-after tree, native to China. Also called the dove tree, it’s named after its beautiful white, flower-like bracts, which appear to flutter, like doves or handkerchiefs, in the slightest breeze.

According to Chinese legend, the handkerchief tree is the most romantic tree in China. It was introduced to the UK in the late 19th Century, by the famous plant collector named Ernest Wilson. He brought seeds back to the UK and his first tree flowered in 1906.

How to grow handkerchief tree

Handkerchief tree is hardy in most parts of the UK and will thrive in a sheltered sunny spot in moist but well-drained soil. It’s ideal for growing in courtyard and urban gardens.


Where to grow handkerchief tree

Handkerchief tree flowers. Getty Images
Handkerchief tree flowers. Getty Images

Handkerchief tree makes a fine specimen tree in the centre of a lawn or as a focal point in a border. It works well in a courtyard or urban garden and needs a sheltered, sunny spot, and moist but well-drained soil.


How to plant handkerchief tree

Autumn leaves of handkerchief tree. Getty Images
Autumn leaves of handkerchief tree. Getty Images

You can plant potted trees at any time of year, but it’s best to plant handkerchief tree in late spring, when the soil is warm. This will give it plenty of time to get established before winter sets in.

  1. Stand the tree in water to wet its roots, and allow to drain
  2. Dig a square hole that’s slightly wider than the tree’s rootball, but no deeper. Lightly fork the base and sides to loosen the soil
  3. Remove the tree from the pot and tease out and unwind any circling roots. Stand the tree in the planting hole, then lay a cane across the hole to make sure the top of the rootball is level with the soil surface
  4. Backfill around the rootball with soil. Use your heel to firm gently all around the rootball
  5. Stake the tree to prevent windrock, which can tear the roots and prevent healthy growth. The stake should be about a third of the height of the tree, hammered in at a 45° angle. Attach the trunk to the stake using a tree tie
  6. Water the tree thoroughly, then keep it watered during dry spells for at least the first year

How to care for a handkerchief tree

Flower buds of handkerchief tree. Getty Images
Flower buds of handkerchief tree. Getty Images

Handkerchief trees need very little maintenance after they have been planted. They grow very quickly when young, but don’t flower for up to 10 years. There’s nothing you can do to speed up the flowering process, just be patient, and keep your tree well-watered during dry spells.


Growing handkerchief tree: pests and diseases

Handkerchief tree is largely pest- and disease-free.

Advice on buying handkerchief tree

Handkerchief trees can be tricky to grow – make sure you have the correct growing conditions before you buy

Always check for signs of pests and diseases before planting

Where to buy handkerchief tree

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