Ginkgo: The Tree That Time Forgot

Ginkgo biloba in autumn

Ginkgo biloba in autumn

by Sophie Twichell, executive director of Friends of Ryerson Woods

When you think of Ginkgo, what comes to mind?  Do you have memories that involve Ginkgo?  Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) has been used in traditional medicine to treat blood disorders and to enhance memory. For some reason, I can never remember if it is Ginkgo or St. John’s Wort that one should take for memory . . . clearly a sign that it’s time for me to add Ginkgo to my daily vitamin regimen!

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Characteristic shape of the Ginkgo leaf.

I do have memories that revolve around Ginkgo.  I remember as a young girl when my parents planted a Ginkgo tree on the south side of my childhood home.  That was my first introduction to this unique tree.  It made an impression due to its unusual leaf shape but even more so due to my parents’ excitement. We watched it grow for many years.  Even though they moved out of that house 25 years ago, my mother still thinks about that tree: “Remember the Ginkgo tree we planted on Ridge Road? I loved that tree.”

Ginkgos are dioecious, with separate sexes, some trees being female and others being male. Females produce seeds with a fleshy outer layer, which contains butyric acid and smells like rancid butter or vomit.

Ginkgos are dioecious, with separate sexes, some trees being female and others being male. Females produce seeds with a fleshy outer layer, which contains butyric acid and smells like rancid butter or vomit.

My second memory is not as rosy.  Each fall during college in Philadephia in the late 1980s, I had to change my regular route to class due to a pesky Ginkgo tree. A female tree dropped a mass of seeds on the sidewalk, which created a sticky, slimy, smelly mess.  Apparently, the fleshy coating of the seeds contains butyric acid, which is also found in rancid butter. Yuck!

Before I knew to avoid this block in spring, I did walk through this mess on the sidewalk and didn’t think much of it.  Later in class, I became extremely self-conscious as I realized that the smell of vomit permeating the classroom was emanating from me — the soles of my shoes reeked!  I must admit, this marred my appreciation for the Ginkgo for a number of years.  Getting that smelly slime off my shoes was nasty. Clearly, the elegant tree I’d grown up with was a well-mannered male.

Because they tolerate pollution, resist pests and disease, and don’t mind confined spaces, Ginkgos are widely planted in urban environments as street shade trees.

Because they tolerate pollution and confined spaces, as well as resist pests and disease, Ginkgos are widely planted in urban environments as street trees.

Despite the practical challenges the female Ginkgo may pose, one can’t deny that this is a most intriguing tree. Native to Asia, it is incredibly resilient.  Many cities plant the hardy Ginkgo because of its ability to survive the trials of road salt, pests and smog.  It is a popular shade tree along city streets. Believe it or not, six Ginkgo trees survived the bombing of Hiroshima in 1945. Situated near the blast center, they budded after the blast without major deformities and are still alive today. Wow.  As a result, some regard Ginkgo as the “bearer of hope.”

Because we like to explore the intersection of art and nature at Ryerson Woods, I wanted to share a poem by the German poet, scientist, botanist and
philosopher, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe on the subject of the Ginkgo. It was first published in 1819.

Gingo Biloba

This leaf from a tree in the East,

Has been given to my garden.

Goethe sent Marianne von Willemer (1784-1860) a Ginkgo leaf as a symbol of friendship. He took the two leaves pasted onto the poem from the Ginkgo tree in the garden of Heidelberg Castle which he had visited with her.

Goethe sent Marianne von Willemer (1784-1860) a Ginkgo leaf as a symbol of friendship. He took the two leaves pasted onto the poem from the Ginkgo tree in the garden of Heidelberg Castle which he had visited with her.

It reveals a certain secret,

Which pleases me and thoughtful people.

Is it a living being,

Which has separated in itself?

Or are these two, who chose

To be recognized as one?

Answering this kind of question,

Haven’t I found the proper meaning,

Don’t you feel in my songs,

That I’m one and double?

At Friends of Ryerson Woods, we seek to bring the residents of Chicagoland’s North Shore the highest quality nature programming. As such, we are delighted to offer a public program on “Ginkgo: The Tree That Time Forgot” by Sir Peter Crane, dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

Peter Crane headshot-smallSir Peter is the Carl W. Knobloch, Jr. Dean of the School of Forestry and Environmental   Studies at Yale University. His work focuses on the diversity of plant life: its origin and fossil history, current status, and conservation and use. His latest book, A Biography of Ginkgo: The Tree That Time Forgot, was released in March 2013. Sir Peter has been the John and Marion Sullivan University professor at the University of Chicago, director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and director of the Field Museum in Chicago with overall responsibility for the museum’s scientific programs.  Sir Peter was knighted in the United Kingdom in 2004 for services to horticulture and  conservation.  Sir Peter knows so much about Ginkgo, an extinct species of Ginkgo is named after him.  Ginkgo cranei was discovered from fossils found in North Dakota.

GINKGO: A FEW FASCINATING FACTS

Here are some facts about Ginkgo that Sir Peter shared with us in anticipation of his talk.

1. Ginkgo is a botanical oddity. Like the platypus among animals, it is a single peculiar species with no close living relatives.

The iconic fan-shaped leaves of ginkgo have been identified as fossils from every continent. Living ginkgo trees have changed little from those that lived 200 million years ago.

The iconic fan-shaped leaves of Ginkgo have been identified as fossils from every continent. Living Ginkgo trees have changed little from those that lived 200 million years ago.

2. The iconic fan-shaped leaves of ginkgo have been identified as fossils from every continent. Living ginkgo trees have changed little from those that lived 200 million years ago.

3. Almost driven to extinction by climate change, wild ginkgo trees survive only in China. But you can see ginkgo today in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, on the streets of Manhattan, and in parks and gardens in all but the warmest and coldest places on our planet.

4. In the East, Ginkgo has been cultivated for a thousand years for its edible seeds, and many ancient trees are greatly revered by followers of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Shintoism.

5. The oldest living ginkgo trees in Europe date from 1730–1750, when ginkgo was introduced from the East. The oldest ginkgo in North America was planted in the 1780s in the Pennsylvania garden of John Bartram, a prominent early American botanist.

6. Today ginkgo is grown as a botanical curiosity and a resilient street tree; extracts from ginkgo leaves have also become a top-selling herbal medicine that is believed to improve memory and learning. Its efficacy, however, remains controversial.

After all this contemplation of the Ginkgo tree, I think it is time for me to plant a Ginkgo tree at my own house so I can pass on the appreciation of this distinctive tree to my children.  A male tree, that is!

I hope you’ll join us on Thursday evening, June 6 at 7pm at the Welcome Center at Ryerson Woods, to learn about the mysteries of Ginkgo tree from one of the world’s most brilliant botanists.  Thanks to our friends at Lake Forest Book Store, we’ll have copies of Ginkgo available for sale and signing. I can’t wait to learn more fascinating facts about Ginkgo.  I look forward to seeing you there.

DETAILS

Ginkgo: The Tree That Time Forgot
with Sir Peter Crane, Dean of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies

Welcome Center, 7:00 p.m.
Ryerson Woods
21950 N. Riverwoods Rd.
Deerfield, IL 60015
Cost: $20 (or $10 for FRW members)
Register:  here or call 847.968.3321 for member discount

Ginkgo coverABOUT THE BOOK (from Yale University Press)

Perhaps the world’s most distinctive tree, ginkgo has remained stubbornly unchanged for more than two hundred million years. A living link to the age of dinosaurs, it survived the great ice ages as a relic in China, but it earned its reprieve when people first found it useful about a thousand years ago. Today ginkgo is beloved for the elegance of its leaves, prized for its edible nuts, and revered for its longevity. This engaging book tells the full and fascinating story of a tree that people saved from extinction – a story that offers hope for other botanical biographies that are still being written. Inspired by the historic ginkgo that has thrived in London’s Kew Gardens since the 1760s, renowned botanist Peter Crane explores the evolutionary history of the species from its mysterious origin through its proliferation, drastic decline, and ultimate resurgence. Crane also highlights the cultural and social significance of the ginkgo: its medicinal and nutritional uses, its power as a source of artistic and religious inspiration, and its importance as one of the world’s most popular street trees. Readers of this extraordinarily interesting book will be drawn to the nearest ginkgo, where they can experience firsthand the timeless beauty of the oldest tree on Earth.

REVIEWS

Ginkgo takes a place among the best books on plants that I have had the pleasure of reading. It provides an extremely interesting account of a remarkable plant through space, time, and culture.”—Peter H. Raven, President Emeritus, Missouri Botanical Garden
 
“Peter Crane provides a compelling and definitive portrait of the Tree That Time Forgot: its ancient lineage, its natural history, and history interwoven with people….an eye-opening page turner about the Ginkgo in particular and trees in general. A triumph of beautifully written scholarship.”—Thomas E. Lovejoy, University Professor of Environmental Science and Policy, George Mason University
 
“The Ginkgo is the elder statesman of the plant world, and Peter Crane’s erudite and fascinating biography is as absorbing as any account of the life of a Churchill or a Lincoln.”—Michael McCarthy, Environment Editor, The Independent, London
All Ginkgo images derived from Wikimedia Commons. Image of Dr. Crane and book cover from Yale University Press.
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About Brushwood Center at Ryerson Woods

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