The handkerchief tree was planted during the restoration of Belvedere back in the late 90’s and it takes 20 years to flower and is incredibly hard to grow from seed.
In May 1888, Irish plant-hunter Augustine Henry“was riding his pony through a river valley [in Hubei, China] when he spotted a single, spectacular tree flowering near the base of a large cliff. As he was later to relate, the scene was one of the strangest sights he ever witnessed in China. It seemed as though the branches had been draped in thousands of ghostly-white handkerchiefs.” (O'Brien p. 79)
In 1881, Henry, a young Irish physician, took a post with the Chinese customs service, which at that time was largely staffed by foreigners supplied by Great Britain. In China, Henry developed a passion for plants and plant-collecting, and over the next 20 years, explored and collected around Yichang, Hubei Province at the mouth of the Three Gorges on the Yangtze River, going further afield, for example into Sichuan, wherever he could get time off.
The handkerchief tree was one of the most important horticultural discoveries late 19th century China. It was first reported to European science by Père Jean Marie Armand David, a French missionary. Père David saw the tree in Sichuan in 1869 and apparently sent notes and a dried specimen to Europe. In 1888, Henry was the second European known to have seen it.
After Henry's description reached England, the powerful nurseryman, Sir Henry Veitch, sent E. H. “Chinese” Wilson--who became one of the most productive of the plant-collectors--to China in 1899 with very specific instructions to bring back seeds of the handkerchief tree. “…do not dissipate time, energy or money on anything else…” Veitch wrote in his contract with Wilson. Wilson eventually succeeded and was responsible for the introduction of the handkerchief tree to Europe.