April 22, 2024


The term ‘living fossil’ is attached to certain species of living beings. These are animals and plants from another era, in which you can even imagine how the dinosaurs made the earth rumble at every step. Or, at the very least, you would see giant insects flying through forests of immense tree ferns. If we look at a platypus—that surreal Australian mammal—or a coelacanth—an antediluvian fish that looks as if it has been stranded in another era—we quickly assume its evolutionary antiquity. But it costs more to see it in plants, and there are several species that it is a miracle that they are still alive. And so close to home, because one lives in parks and gardens as if time were not with it: the ginkgo (ginkgo biloba). Despite its strange spelling, the pronunciation is the sweetest: yingo either ginghamsince you can choose between one or the other, if we base ourselves on the Japanese origin of its name.

The strangeness caused by this tree begins in its region of origin, since if it has survived to the present day, it can almost be assured that it is due to its cultivation. Thanks to the fact that it is a sacred tree, in the East it has been widely planted in its temples and unique buildings, in the same way that in the West yews, cypresses or oaks have taken root in places of worship. It is believed that some isolated individuals in mountainous areas of southern China may be the remains of the last wild population of this species, from where its cultivation was distributed throughout Southeast Asia. This is how the botanist Peter Crane relates it in his complete and praised book dedicated entirely to ginkgo. It was at the end of the 17th century that the German naturalist Engelbert Kaempfer saw ginkgo in Japan, and described it for the first time to Europeans.

Detail of a very split ginkgo leaf.
Detail of a very split ginkgo leaf.Edward Beard (Eduardo Beard)

As Crane and other scientists remind us, ginkgo “grew up with the dinosaurs, and has come down to us almost unchanged for 200 million years.” Only for this prehistoric genetics should we dedicate our respect to it. Its botanical classification is a free verse, since it is the only species of its family, the ginkgoaceae, that is not directly related to other living plants.

Its bearing is majestic and can make humans feel like ants at their feet, being able to exceed 35 meters in height. But what makes it unmistakable with respect to any other tree are its leaves, fan-shaped and fleshy and waxy in texture, which are often divided into a central notch or even several. Hence, Linnaeus baptized it with the last name biloba, two-lobed. These leaves are grouped in small, very graceful clusters, giving the branches a very characteristic appearance. In the fall comes another of the ginkgo’s glorious moments: its leaves turn a deep lemon yellow, and the whole tree turns golden. The curious thing is that on many occasions it gets rid of its autumn tones very quickly. So if we stand under it, it will shower us with a continuous shower of leaves.

During the cold months its seeds will progressively fall to the ground. The flesh that surrounds them gives them a cherry or plum appearance, but they have a rather peculiar, even unpleasant aroma. That is why it is preferable to plant male ginkgo trees rather than female ones, since in this plant the sexes are on different feet. In Asia, this perfumed matter seems not to bother them too much, since they consume the roasted seed, but without its fleshy casing.

Yellow color in a ginkgo leaf
Yellow color in a ginkgo leaf

For all these reasons it can be seen that its morphology is most unique, but it is no less so than its qualities, since it is a true force of nature. It is capable of becoming a millennium, and is unaffected by winds and tides. Consequently, something that is also linked to any reading about the ginkgo is its robustness against any inclement weather, because it is not harmed by cold, heat, pests, diseases, lack of water or pollution. of cities, either in the atmosphere or on the ground. Such strength led him to be the first tree to regrow after the explosion of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima. The spring after the event, a ginkgo sprouted as if nothing had happened, and since then it has become a symbol of hope and peace in the face of human barbarism.

Plant lovers fall for these myriad charms, just like Cor Kwant did. This teacher has been collecting on her blog, The Ginkgo Pagesa huge amount of data and images of the ginkgo from many years ago.

The best thing that can be done is to continue learning about this magnificent tree, and for this, there is nothing better than planting it ourselves. If we don’t have a garden, we can find dwarf varieties in nurseries that are perfect for growing even in pots. It can also be done like Javier Valdés, a retired chemist, who wanted to be a student of this tree, raising it from seed. “My love for ginkgo started with my wife, Elisa, who really likes the leaf, and it made me notice her,” he explains. “From then on, when she passed through a park in the fall and saw her seeds on the ground, she would pick them up. He would leave them for several weeks in a lunch box with wet river sand in the fridge. When spring came he would plant them on the terrace, until their stems began to show above the ground. So I have given them to friends and family. I have fallen in love with ginkgos. I have been fortunate to be able to sow them and to see them grow”.

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