Endemic to central and southwest China, the dove tree lives up to its common name when flowering, with its large, white, wing-like bracts hanging from opposite sides of each small petal-less flower. These large, paired bracts are typically unequal in size by 2 to 3 inches, the larger of the two reaching 6 to 7 inches in length. First introduced to the West as dried herbarium specimens by Father Armand David in 1869, the plant was identified as a new genus and species in 1871 and named after its Western finder.
A French missionary in China in the second half of the 19th Century, Father David is credited with the discovery of hundreds of animal and plant species not previously known to Western science, from the giant panda and a rare deer that now bears his name to many species of rhododendrons, primroses, gentians, and many other plants. Davidia was ultimately collected for propagation purposes by the famous plant collector E.H. Wilson in 1900, "a quantity of fruit which produced some thirteen thousand plants."
Dove trees make fine specimen trees. Whether in leaf, leaf and flower, displaying yellow to red fall color, or dormant, they form a handsome canopy or backdrop with a broad pyramidal habit. They prefer moist, well-drained, rich soil, full sun to part shade, and can reach 20 to 40 feet tall and wide with age.
Found growing in mixed forests from 3600 to 8500 feet, Davidia inhabits Himalayan mountainous regions with conifers and deciduous trees alike, along with camellia, rhododendron, bamboo, and many other iconic Asian plant species. The dove tree has been considered rare and endangered in China by some, and has been subjected to loss of forest habitat for development and farming purposes. Information from modern collectors suggests populations may be somewhat more abundant than previously believed, though they remain fragmented and in danger of reduction by development.
Recent research (March 2017) in Japan has identified tannins extracted from dove tree leaves that exhibit both antibacterial and antitumor activity.
IN BLOOM CONTRIBUTORS: Text by Corey Barnes and Profile by Mona Bourell. Photos by Joanne Taylor and Mona Bourell.