Ginkgo Heaven – why I whisper thanks to every ginkgo I see on the street
Tianmushan near Hangzhou, south of Shanghai, is most famous for its elegant Japanese cedars which line the paths around the nature reserve, but there are also about 250 native ginkgo trees spotted around the area. This gathering of the world’s oldest tree, dating back some 165 million years, is the oldest known natural collection in the world. If they could talk they would tell you that this has been their neighborhood for the last 70 million years, because ginkgo fossils found in the area appear to be virtually the same as the trees still living on the mountain today.
Ginkgoes need company, because their ancient form of reproduction requires a male and a female tree together in order to bear nuts. But not having a mate doesn’t stop them. If an old tree falls down, the base has buds that will grow into a tree. The buds, hidden at the tree’s base, are safe from most disasters like fire or a dinosaur stomping around in the forest, and will spring up if the conditions are right.
Ginko tree on Tianmushan
You can see the nuts hanging on the tree in the photo to the left (or maybe it is the top one depending on your browser) on the right side of the picture. They look a little like green grapes. A farmer lady showed me how to stomp on the nuts to remove the fleshy outer part, which is like poison ivy for some people, so it’s better not to touch it. You can see the white nuts on the inside – they look a little bit like pistachio nuts.
Charlotte once did a voice-over for a local temple in Beijing where there are two old ginkgos. This is the description from her script of the two trees – one male and one female. The script read:
These two gingko trees are Red Snail Temple’s second sight of splendor.
Planted during the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 AD) and now reaching a height of more than 30 meters, these two gingko trees are also known as “spouse trees” for one is male and the other, female. With a cluster of different-sized branches growing around the bottom of the male gingko tree, one can almost feel that this single tree is host to an entire forest. People say that every time a new dynasty comes into being, the male gingko tree will grow another branch at the base of his trunk.
Mysteriously, these two gingko trees are not self-pollinating. Every spring, the pollen from the male tree will be carried over to the female tree by the wind.
When spring arrived in 1994, there was no wind for many days. On the day of April 25, however, the male gingko tree, branches and leaves shaking violently, suddenly gave off a thunder-like sound. Following this event, people saw a cloud of yellow pollen floating towards the female gingko tree. Having received the cloud of pollen, the branches of the female gingko tree moved as if they were dancing, creating quite the spectacle.
This single female gingko tree, which grows over ten kilometers away from Red Snail Temple, is also pollinated by the male gingko tree at Red Snail Temple. Nobody knows, though, how the male tree’s pollen travels such a long distance without fail, year after year.
Red Snail Temple’s male and female gingko trees are beautiful in all seasons, but they are most splendid during autumn. On a certain day in autumn, the green leaves and fruits on the trees turn golden yellow over-night, creating a heavenly picture.
Sounds like the Ginkgos at the Red Snail Temple have quite a love life! But what is amazing about these trees is how they survive through almost anything. There is a venerable ginkgo at a temple in Hiroshima about half a mile from the blast site of the atomic bomb that survived and is still growing at the new temple. In 1946 the temple had been completely destroyed, but the tree (and three others nearby) remained and proceeded to bud again in spite of all they had suffered.
Just so you know, the biggest collection of cultivated ginkgoes in the world is a plantation in South Carolina where there are 10 million ginkgoes grown for their leaves, which produces an extract that is used for medicine to improve blood circulation.
This is why we need ginkgos:
1. They are strong and tough and survive even where conditions are very difficult, like in cities where pollution, poor sunlight, and other abuse keep other trees from succeeding. Ginkgos almost seem to thrive on abuse, which is why so many cities plant them along the streets.
2. They are beautiful. There is something very generous about the ginkgo tree and its unusually shaped leaves. They tend to be vigorous, and give the feeling of strength. This is what the poet Li Shanji wrote about the gingko in the 1800s:
In exquisite billows,
The foliage cascades
From its shrouded source in the sky;
Green abundance veils the top-
Dwelling place of the lone crane.
Like a dancing phoenix
Its trunk soars to the clouds,
Like a coiled dragon perching on a cliff
These images reveal its hidden forces.
2. They provide first-rate medicine from their nuts and leaves. They were listed in the earliest Chinese medical herbal from 2,800 BC – yes, BC – as being helpful for blood circulation and the lungs, and there are copies of herbals from 1436 which use the seeds for skin problems, head sores, and freckles. Another Chinese medicine text from the 1500s reports the seeds as being useful in the treatment of asthma, coughs, bladder irritability, and female issues. The Japanese have used them for digestive problems. Now scientists are testing ginkgo compounds for various conditions, including pain in their legs of diabetics, symptoms of multiple sclerosis, sexual dysfunction due to anti-depressants, insulin resistance, and ringing in the ears.
That is why I am now whispering “thanks” when I pass a ginkgo along the street. What a gift to have such a tree on our planet.