by Jim Atwater
One of the most remarkable trees growing in our park system, a cluster of five in Durand Eastman and a single one behind the Highland Park Bowl, is the legendary dove tree from central Asia. A tree that during the latter part of the 19th century was to ignite the interest of botanists in the West and launch the career of the most prolific plant explorer of the 20th century. This is the story of three men – a Basque priest, an Irish doctor and a 22-year-old English horticultural student – and the parts they played in finding the elusive dove tree.
In 1869 a French missionary Father Armand David sent specimens of a remarkable tree he had encountered in western China to the Natural History Museum in Paris. In 1888 a Dr. Augustine Henry, a medical officer in the Chinese Imperial Customs Service, sent similar specimens to the Royal Botanical Garden at Kew in London. Dr. Charles S. Sargent, director of the Arnold Arboretum in Boston, learning of the Henry specimens, encouraged the famous Veitch Nursery in London to sponsor an expedition into the wilds of western China to seek out the now legendary dove tree. A promising young Englishman named Ernest Henry Wilson concluding his studies at Kew Gardens was selected for this task. His sponsors impressed upon him the importance of finding the dove tree and not to become distracted, as “probably almost every worthwhile plant in China has now been introduced into Europe.” Wilson would later dispel this misconception, introducing over 1500 heretofore unknown plants to the western world during six subsequent expeditions to the Far East.
Wilson sailed from Liverpool to Boston in April 1899, spending five days with Dr. Sargent at the Arnold. He then went by train to San Francisco, sailing for China on May 6th. Arriving in Hong Kong his first assignment was to locate Dr. Henry in Yunnan Province, one thousand miles distant, to learn of the tree’s whereabouts. In addition to the inevitable delays, hostile natives, difficult travel conditions and rustic accommodations he was burdened by complete ignorance of the Chinese language. Delayed further by bad weather and rumors of marauding bandits he finally found Dr. Henry. Six months had now gone by. Dr. Henry gave Wilson a hand-drawn sketch of western Hupeh Province, covering an area the size of upstate New York, showing the tree’s approximate location.
Wilson retraced his steps, arriving back in Hong Kong in late November. In early April 1900 he started up the Yangtze River into the interior. After surviving the perilous rapids, fearsome currents and hidden rocks of the river he arrived at Patung where Chinese officials cautioned him of civil unrest and bandits in the area and advised him to abandon his quest. Not to be deterred he pressed on, arriving in the hamlet of Mahuang-Po on April 25th where he learned that the tree was nearby. He later wrote that “after walking two miles we came to a house rather new in appearance. Nearby was the stump of Father David’s Davidia. The tree had been cut down the year before and the trunk and branches formed the beams and posts of the house. I did not sleep during the night of 4/25/1900!”
Having come this far and surmounting so many obstacles, Wilson was not one to concede defeat. There must be other Davidias in the vast interior of central China he concluded. The search would continue. On May 19th while exploring about five miles away he came upon a 50’ specimen of the dove tree and it was in full flower! He later found ten more within a one-hundred-mile radius and in the fall returned to collect seeds which were sent to the Veitch Nursery in England, arriving there in the spring of 1901 nearly two years after his search had begun. Returning to England in May 1902 he was gratified to find that thousands of these seeds had successfully germinated. Some of these plants it turned out would flower within nine years.
But the story does not end here. Enter two other players in this botanical adventure. Wilson and his sponsor the Veitch Nursery were to learn that seeds from the dove tree had been sent by Father Paul Farges, another French missionary, to Maurice de Vilmorin’s arboretum at Les Barres, France in 1897, two years before Wilson left England. Only one of the Vilmorin seeds had germinated, so in spite of the bitter disappointment Wilson was able to say later in life that although he wasn’t the first to introduce the Davidia involucrata to the western world he was responsible for all but one.
Ernest Henry Wilson made a second trip to Asia for the James Veitch & Sons firm in 1903. He later became associated with Dr. Charles Sargent at the Arnold Arboretum, making four more expeditions to the Far East and a fifth to Africa, India and Australia. He died along with his wife in an auto accident at age 54 in 1930 while returning to Boston after visiting their daughter in Geneva, NY. Dr. Augustine Henry died that same year at age 73.
Addenda: Davidias would normally flower in our area for about 10-14 days in mid-May. Check with the RCGC for a current update if you are interested.