Explore Kynaston Gardens

The famous 'handkerchief tree' grows in this little-known corner of Stoke Newington

ONCE known as the ‘holy grail’ of botany, there is a tree so rare and beautiful that, when it flowers at Kew Gardens in May, thousands of visitors flock to see it.

Incredibly, there’s also one growing in Kynaston Gardens – a tiny, once-forgotten patch of land, off a Stoke Newington side street.

The exotic specimen is the Davidia involucrata, or the handkerchief tree, so called because when its large white blooms are disturbed by the breeze they give the impression of fluttering silk.

Matthew Dillon, secretary and founding member of the Friends of Kynaston Gardens, doesn’t know how the China native, coveted by leading 19th and 20th century botanists, came to sprout in a greenpatch off Kynaston Avenue – a passage linking Stoke Newington High Street and Dynevor Road – but the enigma is indicative of the mystery of the gardens itself.

“A neighbour has photos showing houses that used to be situated in Kynaston Avenue,” said the 37-year-old economist.

Adding: “There is a local myth that the houses were hit by a bomb in the Blitz but, perhaps a more likely theory is that the houses survived the war intact and were demolished as part of slum clearances and the gardens created in their place.” 

During the 1970s and ‘80s, the little park was used as both a play area for local children and as a rose garden but, somewhere along the way, the land became less and less frequented, its condition deteriorated and eventually it began to fall foul of frequent anti-social behaviour.

By 2010, the community had had enough. A small band of nature lovers sat down and decided to form the ‘Friends’ group, and take back the precious plot of greenery in the otherwise densely-populated neighbourhood.

Over two years, from 2013, the Friends worked with the Council and charity Groundwork to secure £84,000 in funding, to renovate the gardens.

Now, the fruits of that labour are plain to see: the new design includes food plots for local people and schools, wild flowers to improve biodiversity, and a new children’s play area.

“The gardens are now a well-loved asset for all the community,” said Matthew, of Dynevor Road. Today, the Friends group works with the community and the Council – which helps by providing resources through its parks department and acting as custodian of some of the grants – to ensure the gardens remain a green haven amid the busy bustle of urban Hackney life.

The question now is, can they make the handkerchief tree bloom?