The trees originate in China and were first discovered in 1869 by a French missionary/naturalist, Armand David. He found just a single tree way up in the mountains, harvested its seeds and sent them, dried, to Paris. Not to be outdone by the French, in the 1890s the noted plant collector, EH ‘Chinese’ Wilson was dispatched by the plant firm James Veitch and Son to find Armand David’s Handkerchief tree (now named the Davidia involucrata in his honour) and bring more seeds back to Europe. Wilson tracked down a second single tree that had been sighted some years previously – but arrived only to find that it had been cut down to build houses. Not deterred, he headed for the location of Armand David’s original sighting and was rewarded with not just one, but a whole grove of Handerkchief trees. After some further months of plant hunting he headed for home with his precious seeds – only to suffer shipwreck on the way. But, obviously a resourceful bloke, he managed to save not only himself but his Davidia specimens, the descendents of which are now to be found in major gardens across the UK. And one of them is in Kenwood.
I cannot find anything out about Kenwood’s tree on the English Heritage site but it is very substantial – very roughly I would estimate both a spread and a height of around 100 feet/30 metres. So even though it grows relatively fast, I suspect it may have been there knocking on 100 years. And it is looking truly magnificent, towering over the azaleas….
But, as you can see from this image – you can only see the azalea side of it! Two thirds of its magnificence is hidden behind the last few trees in the more recently planted lime avenue. And who ever planted the lime avenue was not thinking ahead to what would happen to the Handkerchief tree once the limes grew up!
I am not, obviously, suggesting that the avenue should be cut down. But, even if one could lose the two trees closest to the Handkerchief tree it would make a huge difference and you would be able to see its massive, many branched trunk and shopful of handkerchiefs which at the moment are hidden in this gloomy grove.
Please, English Heritage, have a think about it. Handkerchief trees are rare and amazing so it seems criminal that it should be hidden away behind lime trees which, while perfectly fine and good trees, are extremely common and nowhere near as interesting. And losing just two from the far end of the avenue would scarcely be noticeable…..
Shall I start a petition?
17th June – Update
Today I was gardening in the Hill Garden with Heath Hands and I discovered that there is not one, but there are two handkerchief trees in the border at the bottom of the long lawn below the pond in the Hill Garden.
I was telling Ash, the Head Gardener at the Hill Garden how cross I was about the lime trees blocking the Kenwood tree – and he put me firmly to rights! Apparently THE Davidia involucrata expert of all time visited all three trees fairly recently and he told Ash that it was actually fortunate that the Kenwood tree was so surrounded by other trees and bushes as they were protecting it from the elements. Quite important for Davidia involucrata in our climate. This guy reckoned that as a result the Kenwood tree was probably the largest in the UK.
So ignore me, English Heritage!! Well, I am sure they were anyhow. Although I am still sad that one cannot see the tree in its full glory, if the limes are actually protecting it, I guess they need to stay.
Ash also said that they were quite temperamental and that while this year his two trees, like the Kenwood one, had been completely covered in handkerchiefs, last year they put on a very poor showing with only a couple of dozen kerchiefs per tree. I don’t remember noticing the Kenwood one – maybe for the same reason. No fluttering white kerchiefs on offer.