Marjorie’s dove tree turns 40

It’s a lucky visitor whose gaze turns east along the path between the mansion and the Enclosed Garden, instead of west across the blooming North Garden and Great Lawn to Narragansett Bay. The western view is a compelling one to be sure and even I am caught up short by it every time I walk by. But right now to the east there’s an even more spectacular view. If slightly more subtle. The Davidia involucrata, otherwise known as the dove tree, handkerchief tree, ghost tree or laundry tree (I would never call it that) is in full bloom.

Blithewold’s dove tree was given to Marjorie Lyon in 1973 for her 90th birthday (along with several other trees including the Stewartia pseudocamellia that died in this past winter’s blizzard). It was a particularly interesting gift because it was unlikely that she’d live long enough to see its flowers. And in fact, she didn’t. (They usually take about 10 years to come into bloom.) But like so many of the trees at Blithewold, it was planted and cherished for its promise to provide future generations with an eyeful of gorgeousness. So we are the recipients of that gift — a generous one this year because it seems more loaded with flowers than ever.

I always try to remember to walk over to the tree in late-April/May because a few days before it becomes showy enough to catch anyone’s eyes from the path, the flowers emerge along the branches like teeny-tiny burgundy-black buttons flanked by teeny-tiny green bracts. They’re totally adorable. And almost fast enough to watch, the bracts grow into dangling tissues that remind me of homemade Halloween ghosts, and the flowers expand into fuzzy greyish spheres. Right now it’s as beautiful — and strange — from a distance as it is close-up.

Although the dove tree would seem to deserve a more front-and-center placement, it was tucked back against a windbreak of rhododendron and chamaecyparis for protection because with a zone rating of 6-8, it’s considered marginally hardy here (we’re Zone 6b/7). It hails from central China and wants full sun to partial shade and the ideal garden combination of organically rich, moist, well-drained soil. It will stay in the 20-40′ range and has a pyramidal habit. So pretty.

Do you have a dove tree or have you seen one in bloom? What did you think of it?