Peter Dowdall discovers a garden tree that has not only survived the bombing of Hiroshima, but has been around for over 170m years.

The Milky Way in which we live, is 13-and-a half billion years old and Nasa reckons that it measures over 100,000 light years in diameter.

I don’t even understand how that measurement makes sense, let alone begin to comprehend the size of it. Suffice to say, it’s vast. 

The universe has this way of making us feel infinitesimal, so insignificant compared to the overall scale of where we are. 

Sometimes we get so wrapped up in our own issues and our individual little worlds that we forget that we are only tiny parts of something so much bigger.

In 1989 in China, palaeontologists unearthed ginkgo fossils which they were able to trace back one 170 million years, the oldest ginkgo fossils found in the world to date.

Gingko fossil in the Smithsonian Institute. The tree has survived through mass extinctions, the Ice Age and nuclear war.
Gingko fossil in the Smithsonian Institute. The tree has survived through mass extinctions, the Ice Age and nuclear war.

Think about that figure for a moment —to put it in context, the earliest finds of human skeletons were found in Africa and date back only 200,000 years, mere whippersnappers in the overall scheme of things. 

The last mass extinction was when the dinosaurs were wiped out over 65 million years ago — ginkgos survived. 

When the Quarternary glaciers swept across the planet two million years ago and wiped out nearly all plant and animal life, ginkgos survived.

Unfortunately, according to a study led by Stanford, Princeton and the University of California-Berkeley published last year, vertebrates are disappearing at a rate 114 times faster than normal.

“These estimates reveal an exceptionally rapid loss of biodiversity over the last few centuries, indicating that a sixth mass extinction is already under way,” it states.

Will the ginkgo survive this one when it happens?

Like all young bucks we think we know it all, and that those older than us have nothing to offer in terms of knowledge or experience. 

As Mark Twain said: “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years”.

Ginkgo biloba in fruit: As an ornamental tree, ginkgo biloba will grow to 25m or more with a broad, spreading crown. They are great for an urban situation, even if on the large side, as they will tolerate pollution and filter the carbon and toxins in the air.
Ginkgo biloba in fruit: As an ornamental tree, ginkgo biloba will grow to 25m or more with a broad, spreading crown. They are great for an urban situation, even if on the large side, as they will tolerate pollution and filter the carbon and toxins in the air.

In this instance, we humans are not even 14 — do we have to wait till we hit 21 to see what our elders have to offer? Will we even survive that long if we don’t start learning now? What secrets lie within the ginkgo and other ancient plants? How many different climate changes have they survived, how do they learn to adapt?

There are currently over 1,000 ginkgos in China which are over 1,500 years old and many over 3,000 years old. Surely that in itself should tell us we have much to learn from these mysterious creatures. 

Six trees in Hiroshima survived the atom bomb though virtually all other forms of life were wiped out. They survive there to this day.

Over the years, different parts and extracts of ginkgo have been found to contain insecticidal properties and the trees have the ability to improve cognitive function and blood circulation. 

There is also certain evidence that it can help in the treatment of dementia. Ginkgo nuts have many health benefits and are believed to be an aphrodisiac in China. Like most medicines and health supplements, eating too many will cause poisoning.

Unique in the plant world, as each leaf contain two veins which radiate out in the same fan shape as the leaf, ginkgois a bit special as it’s a conifer — a deciduous, broad-leaved conifer. 

It’s not quite that simple however as ginkgo has its own scientific division — ginkgophyta — which contains one class ginkgoopsida, with one order ginkgoales containing the family ginkgoaceae, which has only one genus ginkgo and, you guessed it, only one species, G biloba, the only species to still exist.

Having survived so many climate changes it’s no surprise that the trees are quite connected locally with weather forecasting. 

One specimen, over 1,500 years old in the grounds of a primary school in Hebrei Province in China, dramatically loses all its leaves in one day as the cold weather of winter approaches. It is then and not until then, that the local farmers harvest their produce.

As an ornamental tree ginkgo biloba will grow to a height of 25m or more with a broad spreading crown. They are a great, though large tree for an urban situation as they will tolerate pollution and filter the carbon and toxins in the air.

At their best over the last month their foliage turns the most magnificent yellow during the autumn months.

Professional photographer Jimmy Shen grew up at the foot of the Tian Mu mountains where ginkgos have existed in the wild for over 100 million years.

He is a professional photographer and has recently launched a crowd funding campaign to publish a book of photographs on ginkgos.

To see some stunning images and learn more about this fascinating, ancient wonder have a look at: www.indiegogo.com/projects/ginkgo-picture-book#/ 


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