One of the most unusual trees that Mother Nature has produced is the handkerchief tree, with the botanical name Davidia involucrata. Its unique petals, up to 18 cm long, are amazingly similar to white handkerchiefs on a clothesline. Viewed from a distance, the opposite white bracts are reminiscent of a flock of pigeons that have settled there. That is why it is also called the dove tree. The homeland of this deciduous species is China, where it reaches a height of up to 20 meters. In Central Europe, the handkerchief tree, which is not completely hardy, mostly thrives in botanical gardens or in the parks and gardens of regions that have a mild climate. Therefore, the tree is also very popular as a container plant, which can move to winter quarters in the cold season.

Before planting, determine the distance

When a tree is planted, not only the site conditions and soil quality play a role, but also the required distance from the house and neighbors. Since the handkerchief tree in the local latitudes does not grow nearly as tall as in its home country China, it is one of the third-order trees in Germany, i.e. small trees that grow to a maximum of 10 meters in height. The minimum distance to the house should correspond to the expected tree height. The planting distance to the neighboring property is regulated by law in Germany, at state level. If anything is unclear, it is therefore advisable to obtain the relevant regulations of the neighborhood law before planting the pigeon tree. As a rule of thumb, plants that reach more than 2 meters in height

plants in the bed

The attractive ornamental tree prefers to grow in nutrient-rich, humus-rich soil that is not too dry. The handkerchief tree does not feel well in a predominantly loamy soil quality because the required permeability is not given here. The location should be sunny to semi-shady and sheltered from the wind. If these requirements are met, experience has shown that successful planting takes place in the following steps:

  1. At the selected location, the soil is freshly dug up to loosen it. However, if the soil is very damp, this measure is avoided. In this case, digging leads to undesirable soil compaction.
  2. During the soil work, the root ball of the handkerchief tree is placed in a bucket of water until no more air bubbles rise.
  3. Now the planting hole is dug. It is the ideal size when it is 1.5 times as deep and twice as wide as the base of the tree. If you shovel the soil into a wheelbarrow, it is better to mix it up there with about 30% good garden compost and a few handfuls of horn shavings. Manure and artificial fertilizers are unsuitable because these additions would attack the young roots.
  4. The bottom of the hole must not be compacted and is ideally loosened up a little before the root ball is placed in it. Depending on the size and strength of the young pigeon tree, it may be necessary to additionally place a support stake in the hole and tie the tree trunk to it with coconut rope.
  5. The bale is placed in the middle of the planting hole and the bale cloth is removed. The loose soil is now distributed around it so that it ends up being as flush as possible with the surrounding surface, although it is not a problem if it is covered with potting soil up to 1 cm.
  6. Finally, a pouring rim is formed and the soil lightly stepped on before the freshly planted root ball is watered.

The best time to plant the handkerchief tree is early spring, as this gives the young roots enough time to grow until winter.

plants in the bucket

Since the height of the noble ornamental tree can be controlled by an annual pruning, many gardeners like to cultivate it in a bucket. If the dimensions of the planter roughly correspond to the dimensions of a planting hole in the bed, the young tree can grow in it without any problems. Forward-thinking gardeners place the planter on a castor board so that the pigeon tree can be easily moved, even with increasing weight.

The substrate ideally corresponds to the mixture of 2/3 garden soil, 1/3 garden compost and a few handfuls of horn shavings, as used in the bed. Since there is always a risk of waterlogging in a bucket, experienced hobby gardeners prevent this with the help of drainage that is spread out over the water drainage hole. Suitable materials are gravel or crushed potsherds covered with a permeable garden or weed fleece. A first layer of substrate is placed on top before the root ball is positioned in the middle. While a helping hand holds the tree trunk as straight as possible, the potting soil is poured in. A few centimeters remain free up to the edge of the bucket so that nothing spills over when watering.


The following care instructions contribute to a successful cultivation of the handkerchief tree:

  • Remove dead shoots in spring
  • water regularly in summer
  • Water thoroughly every 3 days during dry periods
  • April and July fertilize organically or minerally
  • do not fertilize after August
  • mulch regularly
  • no cut required

If there is no rain, the thirsty handkerchief tree needs copious amounts of water, especially during the summer. In order for the root ball to be really thoroughly moisturized, the rule of thumb is that the water hose should run for about 1 hour.


Only in adulthood is the handkerchief tree hardy to -15° Celsius. Until then, it needs winter protection outdoors, at the latest when it has shed its leaves. If several frosty nights in a row are announced beforehand, protective measures are applied over the leaves:

  • Cover roots thickly with foliage
  • Wrap the trunk with jute ribbon
  • Wrap the crown in fleece or bast mats
  • Remove winter protection in mid-April
  • Place buckets in frost-free winter quarters
  • Cellar room or unheated conservatory suitable

Although older pigeon trees are largely hardy, they still need protection from the winter sun on the bark. It is enough to lean wooden boards against the trunk so that the bark is not damaged. Davidia involucrata, which is cultivated in planters, should be placed in a cool, frost-proof room even when they are older, because there is a risk that the root ball will freeze through. If no suitable space is available, place the planter on a styrofoam block on a wind-protected south wall of the house and wrap it thickly with bubble wrap. On frost-free days, a thumb test is used to determine whether the root ball needs some water.


Anyone who has succumbed to the fascination of the handkerchief tree will sooner or later deal with the question of how to increase their own stock. Experience has shown that two promising methods are available:


Since the genus Davidia is the only species that contains the handkerchief tree, it can be propagated by seed from a single variety. The three to five seeds are in the small brown drupes that appear in October. However, it requires enormous patience, because the germination time is 18 months on average. With the help of a cold treatment of the seeds in the cultivation substrate in a controlled environment, there is a good chance of significantly shortening the dormancy.

For this purpose, the seed is placed in a small plastic box filled with moist, nutrient-poor substrate or, alternatively, coarse-grained sand that is also moist. To make sure that there are no unwanted germs in the substrate, it spends about 20 minutes at 200° in the oven or 10 minutes at 800 watts in the microwave. When cool, the substrate with the seeds goes into the fridge for 4 to 8 weeks.

This cold treatment, which is called stratification in botany, serves to get the seeds ready to germinate. This is followed by a warm period of 3 to 4 months, which the seed spends in slightly moist potting soil at a temperature between 20° and 25° Celsius. With a bit of luck, the first seedling will appear. From this point on, it is then grown in a wind-protected, partially shaded location.


Immediately after flowering in June or July, a 10 cm to 15 cm long piece without buds is cut off a young, not yet very woody shoot with a sharp knife. If there are leaves on them, they are completely cut off in the lower part. They are cut in half in the upper part so that the cutting uses its energy mainly for the formation of new roots. To speed up this process, you can treat the cut with rooting powder made from seaweed extract. Half of the shoot is placed in permeable, nutrient-poor growing substrate that is slightly moistened. A plastic film is placed over it, which is aired regularly to prevent mold from forming. The cuttings spend the next few weeks and months in a sheltered, warm place, while the growing pot is rooted. It is important to keep the substrate slightly moist during this phase without waterlogging.

diseases and pests

Although no specific diseases or pests are known to affect the handkerchief tree, the leaves can suddenly wither from the edge in the middle of the season. In the further course it comes to premature fall of leaves. Such an appearance is either due to excessive dryness or to damage caused by road salt. Soil that is too dry can be remedied with penetrating irrigation. If damage due to lack of water can be ruled out and unsightly leaf spots appear in connection with curled edges, damage from de-icing salts is to be feared. Since these salts only seep into the ground very slowly, damage can still occur years after the last application. For this reason, it is advisable to use organic litter materials, such as wood ash, in winter. If the pigeon tree is already damaged, only complex measures such as a complete soil replacement, regular fertilization and sufficient watering can usually save it. Incidentally, not only the handkerchief tree is susceptible to damage from road salt, but almost all tree species.

The handkerchief tree immediately captivates the viewer when it unfolds its unique, white petals in spring, which gave it its name. Until then, the exotic deciduous tree will present the garden enthusiast with a patience test that can last up to 10 years. The cultivation of the pigeon tree does not require extensive care during this time, as long as it is in a sunny to partially shaded and not too dry location. Proper planting is therefore a crucial prerequisite for a healthy and resilient tree.

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