Rare handkerchief tree in bloom at National Trust’s Dunster Castle

Handkerchief in flower (c)National Trust/John Miller

A rarely found tree in the UK is currently in bloom in the tropical climate of the river garden at the National Trust’s Dunster Castle, near Minehead in Somerset.  The warm, dry weather over recent months has meant that the unusual handkerchief tree has started to bloom earlier than usual. 

When fluttering in the breeze, the flowers look like a collection of hankies or white birds ruffling their feathers, meaning it’s sometimes known as the Dove Tree or Davidia involucrate.  Visitors will be able to see the tree for around three weeks when it flowers, until the end of May. 

Legend has it that the plant as a cutting was brought here by a former lady of the castle, Alys Luttrell, in her handbag from South Africa.  The plant originates from Central China and was planted by keen gardener, Alys, at the castle in the mid 1900s. 

Alys loved flowers, took pride in the garden and was an avid plant collector, so when she knew that she was heading for the British Isles, she insisted on bringing some plants with her.  Alys also collected many plants that came from many different holiday trips.  These can be seen in the river gardens and throughout the property.  The Dove Tree may be seen in summer in our wonderful River Gardens located beside the mill. 

Native to central China, this plant is the only member of its genus. This species was discovered in 1868 by French missionary and naturalist Père Armand David, after whom it was named.  However, the plant’s introduction to western gardens in 1904 was down to nursery owner Sir Harry Veitch, and his plant collector, Kew-trained Ernest “Chinese” Wilson.  The survival of the tree at Dunster Castle is testament to the skills shown by Alys Luttrell in being able to bring this plant to Dunster Castle and the safe-keeping of the plant by National Trust gardeners.


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