Ginkgo Biloba, Jamestown, NC
The popular urban street tree we know and recognize as Ginkgo Biloba is the sole survivor of a long lineage of seeded plants and may even be the oldest existing tree that dates back 200 million years to the Jurassic period. It has no living relatives. No doubt dinosaurs dined on its fan shaped leaves which are now unique to these colorful yellow fall trees. The leaf shape has inspired the Japanese to call the tree “I-cho” meaning “tree that looks like a duck’s foot”. The tree was considered extinct at one time, but the species Ginkgo Biloba was found surviving in a few isolated mountain areas of China south of the Yangtze River.
I was first attracted to these trees on a weekend trip to Atlanta, Georgia. Ginkgo’s make wonderful street trees around the world for a variety of reasons including their presence makes the passage feel narrower and causes drivers to slow down. We turned through an intersection in the inner city on a brisk fall afternoon resplendent with sunshine and stared directly into a stand of Ginkgo trees in full splendor lining an urban center. That beautiful sight remains in my mind’s eye even today. I was landscaping our yard at the time and the next weekend after many phone calls I was able to locate one male tree for sale. I immediately planted it in the backyard and it has thrived there ever since.
I’ve always found it interesting to walk out to the backyard in the late fall and find that practically all of the intense yellow leaves had fallen overnight and blanketed the ground around the base of the tree. Since then I have learned of people around the world who make a ritual of gathering around the trees where they try to catch the leaves as they spiral downward in the breeze. One college has even proposed the appointment of a Grand Lorax to sound the alarm when the leaves begin to fall, as you’ve got to be quick!
Because of the Ginkgo’s long history and the fact that they can live over 2,500 years, a lot of magic and medicinal properties are ascribed to the tree. Interestingly, the East has focused on the seeds while the West focuses on extracts of the leaves. People have also noticed that the leaf shape resembles one half of the human brain which has resulted in products for memory and aging. One legend proposes that if a girl sits under a male Ginkgo tree on a moonlit night and combs her hair, her wish will come true. I have the male tree in my yard, but a lack of hair could be problematic!
The Ginkgo Biloba may be the last of the Ginkgo’s, but it’s a survivor! And perhaps it has survived to this very day as a beautiful reminder to all of us that we’ve been given stewardship of this blue orb, but once we lose that last species our very own existence will be in jeopardy.