The Handkerchief Tree, the Great Panda and a French Missionary



In late May/June, the Hankerchief Tree (Davidia involucrate) shows its unique flowers, tight clusters about 1–2 cm across, reddish in colour, and each flowerhead wrapped up with a pair of large (12–25 cm), white bracts at the base giving it the aspect of a handkerchief, especially if gently moved by a little breeze. The flowers are lined up along the branches of the tree, giving the tree a spectacular look. Outside this short period of flowering it is a rather unimpressive tree, found in Botanical Gardens and parks, and native to China.

It is named “Davidia” after the French Catholic priest and Lazarist missionary David Armand (Père David) who described the tree first and sent a dried specimen to France. Armand (1826-1900) was not only a missionary, but also a great botanist and zoologist. After his education in Bayonne (Basque country) he went to Paris to enter the congregation of the ‘Lazaristes’, who were missionaries. Between 1850 and 1862 he was in a Lazarist cloister near Genua, where he devoted himself to natural sciences. When in 1861 the Paris zoologist Milne-Edwards asked the cooperation of missionaries to collect animals and plants in – then still unexplored – China, the Lazarists sent Armand David to this country.

Once in China he made several large expeditions; in 1866 to Mongolia, in 1868-1870 in central China and Sichuan, and in 1872-1874 in Central and Eastern China. In 1874 he returned to France, where he settled down in the headquarters of the congregation in Paris. He published on his expeditions, and also a large work on the birds of China.

During his travels in China, he collected 13,000 specimens including 189 new plant and animal species, among these the handkerchief tree (Davidia involucrata), the butterfly bush (Buddleja davidii), Lilium davidii, Populus davidiana, as well as thirteen species of rhododendrons, three magnolias, four firs, and four oaks.

In March 1869, Père David discovered the Giant Panda near Baoxing (previously Moupin) in the Sichuan province of China. He wrote: “The young bear is entirely white, except for his four limbs, his ears, and the area around his eyes which are a deep black. Thus, we have here a new species of Ursidae that is very remarkable not only because of its color but also because of the hairiness under its paws.” The animal, which is mostly active at night and lives at an altitude of about 3,000 m in inaccessible areas, was very little known outside the local population. Despite there being a number of depictions of bears in Chinese art starting from its most ancient times, and the bamboo being one of the favorite subjects for Chinese painters, there are no known pre-20th-century artistic representations of giant pandas. It became very famous around the world, including China, only very recently.

In the midst of his work as a naturalist Father David did not neglect his missionary labours, and was noted for his careful devotion to his religious duties and for his obedience to every detail of his order’s rules. Back in France, he said:

“When I came to China, my great ambition was to share the harsh and meritorious work of the missionaries who, for three centuries, have been trying to win over the vast populations of the Far East to Christian civilization. But all the sciences which have for their object the works of creation tend to the glory of their author; they are praiseworthy in themselves, and holy in their object; to know the truth is to know God.”


Wikipedia: David Armand (English), David Armand (French), Handkerchief Tree, Giant Panda

Cédric Basset, In the Footsteps of Father David

Further recommended reading:

Bernard Scott CM, Père Jan Pierre Armand David CM