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Patience will pay off with a handkerchief tree in your French garden

Cathy Thompson regrets not planting one sooner and looks at how the flowering tree was discovered in China by a French priest

The handkerchief tree Davidia involucrata takes ten years or more to flower Pic: Julian Sutton / Traveller70

As we sneak up to St Catherine’s day on 25 November, I’m reflecting on a tree I wish I’d got in the ground years ago, so that I’d be enjoying it now. 

Sadly, since it takes ten years or more to flower, I’m afraid I’m going to have to visit someone else’s garden to lie (in April or May, depending on our season), under the fluttering white handkerchiefs of Davidia involucrata

19th century French priest sent on expedition

This desirable tree has a nice link to France, since it was first discovered by Père Armand David in 1869 on a natural history expedition from Beijing (previously Peking), west to the flower-rich territory of Sichuan and Tibet. 

With a degree in biology from the university in his native Espelette in the north of the Basque country, he was ordained a Lazurist (missionary) priest in 1850 and dispatched to Beijing 1862 as part of a team setting up proselytising schools. 

In 1869, the Natural History Museum of Paris persuaded the Lazarist mission that Père David should be dispatched on a government-funded expedition west of Beijing into the flower-rich regions of Sichuan and down into Tibet. 

First western sighting of Giant panda

This landmark trip is best remembered amongst the scientific community as marking the first western sighting of the ‘fameux ours blanc et noir’, or Giant panda. 

In the month of March his first encounter with the bear was, sadly, in the form of a rug on the floor of the home of his dinner host for the evening – ‘un certain Li, who was the biggest landowner in the Hong-chan-tin valley in Sichuan, which Père David was then surveying. 

He did manage, thankfully, to finally encounter a live specimen, later in the month of April.  

Read more: Incredible journey of France’s first giraffe

Witnessed Davidia involucrata in flower

Much less famously, it was exactly in this month and in this valley that he saw Davidia involucrata in flower, sending specimen leaves and flower bracts back to the museum in Paris. 

Europe would have to wait until 1897 before another French botanist-cleric, Frère Paul Farges, dispatched in the tracks of Père David by his patron Maurice de Vilmorin, brought seed back to France.

Two years later Vilmorin had germinated one seedling and was savvy enough to ensure distribution of this fabulous new genus by sending out cutting-raised material to European botanic establishments, well before the original tree flowered for the first time ‘in captivity’ in 1906. 

French discovery developed by English 

Let’s continue, proud of the French achievement and mention, only in passing, that most of today’s commercially available Davidia stock has, as its origin, the hugely successful later crop of 13,000 seedlings raised by English nurseryman, Harry Veitch, in about 1900. 

Patience needed to see it flower

There is no reason why I should not plant Davidia here – it is a medium-sized tree, no larger than about 20m in maturity and I’d have the space. 

It likes well-drained but moisture-retentive soils which are, like its native mountain forests in China, fairly rich in organic matter. 

The issue is that I might have to wait between 10 and 20 years to see those wonderful bracts, with the glorious, ball-like agglomeration of stamens at their base. 

Instead, I think I’d be best to go to the national arboretum of Barres in the Loiret. 

The Domaine de Barres was the family home of Maurice de Vilmorin and you can still see the first Davidia involucrata introduced to the West in its grounds. 

‘Strawberry’ vine was lost in translation

While researching gardens to visit during the summer, I was intrigued to note that one gardener had planted a strawberry plant to cover his pergola. 

Lead me to that robust strawberry, I thought, and my soft fruit visions will be satisfied for the foreseeable future!

Disappointment followed, of course. 

It was a simple problem of translation from English to French of the name ‘fragola’. 

This was not a new and prolific strawberry, but a grapevine whose fruit and resulting wine carry unmistakable overtones of strawberry. 

There’s a lot of controversy and confusion as to why it is illegal to sell ‘fragolino’ wine in the EU, in spite of the fact that it is still treasured, and produced, in northern Italy. 

Officially the wine was outlawed by the European Union in 1979 because the process of fermentation is said to provoke high levels of methanol, difficult to control and dangerous for health. 

‘Fragola’ vine banned over phylloxera fears

Another possibility ties in with the 1935 French ban on new plantings of the American ‘Isabella’ vine (a parent of the Italian ‘fragola’ vine, related to Vitis labrusca rather than V. vinifera). 

It was this vine that carried the dreaded plague of phylloxera into Europe in the 1800s. As we know, later introductions of American phylloxera-resistant rootstocks would save the day, but ‘phylloxera fear’ lingered. 

There are also whispers about an element of national hubris: was it feared that the sweet, strawberry-like taste could undermine the quality of French wines? 

Read more: How a vigneron tackles vine disease in France

Peasant planting

There might be another reason behind the European ban, however, and I quite like this one. 

The popularity of the Isabella vine in northern Italy stems not just from the rustic wine produced, but from the fact that the Isabella grapevine was easy to propagate vegetatively by layering, doing away with the need to buy in expensive grafted vines. 

There you are – peasants always favour what’s cheap to plant and maintain. 

An early example of big business manipulating sustainable local agriculture?

Whatever, I’m ready to experiment with a ‘fragola’ vine … 

You can email your comments or gardening queries, to Cathy at editor@connexionfrance.com 

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