Native to China, it was first described to the Western world by French priest, missionary, and naturalist Abbe Armand David, for whom it was eventually named. Blooming in late spring, it makes clusters of small rust-colored flowers, each cluster surrounded by two white bracts, one 3 to 4 inches in length and the other 6 to 7 inches. The unusual description so inflamed the interest of the famous Veitch nursery that they dispatched a plant explorer named Ernest Wilson to China, particularly to harvest seeds of the tree.
Given only the vague location of a specimen that had been sighted years earlier, Wilson actually succeeded in finding it, only to discover that it had since been turned into lumber. Fortunately, he was able to hunt down a few more dove trees and dispatch a hefty haul of their seed pods back to England.
What Wilson didn't know was that another French priest, Pere Farges, already had sent some of the "nuts" to a nurseryman in his own country, Maurice de Vilmorin. Out of the 37 he received, Vilmorin succeeded in germinating one in 1898, which flowered in 1906. So the Veitch nursery, with seeds that weren't planted until 1901--the first blooms appearing in 1911--couldn't, after all, take credit for introducing Davidia involucrata to Europe.
As indicated by the nursery's experience, dove trees can take ten years to flower from the time the seeds are sown, and then those trees sometimes only bloom on alternate years! In addition to the flowers, they boast orange-ish brown bark, linden-like heart-shaped leaves 3 to 6 inches long, and nut-like dangling seedpods.
If you want to try growing dove trees from seed, soak the ripe nuts for about a week before planting them, to loosen the pulpy husks. After scrubbing off those husks, place the whole nuts in a plastic bag of damp seed-starting mix. Keep it at room temperature for three months, then refrigerate it for 3 months before returning it to warm conditions. The nuts may make radicles (primary roots) during the first warm period, but will probably wait until the second one to send up sprouts. Each nut can contain several seeds, so it may produce more than one seedling.
The trees, which are hardy in USDA zones 6 to 8, grow to 60 feet and should be planted in rich and well-drained soil in a protected location where wind won't lacerate their showy bracts. The type introduced by and named for Vilmorin, Davidia involucrata var. Vilmoriniana, has leaves with smooth rather than felty undersides. It is supposedly somewhat more hardy than the hairier species type. Gardeners not strong on patience may want to purchase the "Sonoma" cultivar, which blooms within two to three years.
So, did this once much sought after tree live up to its hype? It's hard to say as some gardeners adore it and others are less than impressed. It depends, as so many things do, on the eye of the beholder!
Images: The thumbnail photo is by growin from the Dave's Garden PlantFiles. The antique image is by M. Smith from a 1912 edition of Curtis Botanical Magazine, courtesy of plantillustrations.org. The leaves photo is by Jean-Pol Grandmont and the enhanced flowers photo by Myrabella, both courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and these licenses: License 3, License 4.