The Ginkgos of Autumn: Living Fossils, Urban Harvest
Sep 29, 2009
The ginkgo harvest has begun. When I was out for my walk this morning I saw one 60-ish couple of Asian origin heading home, carrying a plastic sack bulging with ginkgo nuts.
The ginkgos haven’t yet turned the gorgeous yellow they will in October, but, sure enough, when I crossed the park where I’ve seen people carefully looking for gingko nuts in that past, I crunched under foot the small fruit of the tree. Before I could look down to make sure what I was stepping on, the disgusting smell of the fruit rose up. Rotten garbage, vomit, durian: some places have torn out all the female ginkgos in order to avoid the smell.
The trees, however, are splendid from spring through late fall, and do very well in city pollution. Where the fruit ripens just as frost arrives—or where ginkgo lovers harvest it—the smell is not a problem. The survival of the species also is an eloquent testimony to what good can be done by humans, if they try.
The ginkgos we see today are the only representatives of a botanical order which fossil records show having about 19 members in the time of the dinosaurs. The order became extinct in North American and Europe millions of years ago, but one species survived in China and Japan. Legend has it that the Chinese emperor Shen Nung, who supposedly catalogued thousands of medicinal plants about 3,000 years ago, appreciated it and cultivated in his garden. What is certain is that it was cared for carefully in palace and monastery gardens for centuries before the German botanist Engelbert Kaempfer found it in Japan. He brought seeds back to Europe in 1691, and within 100 years it had been widely planted in botanical and royal gardens around the world.
The two ginkgos in my neighborhood park were planted around the turn of the 20th century when it was part of a private garden. Since then they’ve grown tall and beautiful—and bountiful too, if you know enough to look. Thanks are due to those who so long ago recognized the tree’s qualities and safe-guarded it.
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About the reviewer
Mary Soderstrom is a Montreal-based writer of fiction and non-fiction. Her new collection of short stories, Desire Lines: Stories of Love and Geography, will be published by Oberon Press in November, … more
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Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba; in Chinese and Japanese 銀杏, pinyin romanization: yín xìng, Hepburn romanization: ichō or ginnan), also known as the Maidenhair Tree after Adiantum, is a unique species of tree with no close living relatives. The ginkgo is classified in its own division, the Ginkgophyta, comprising the single class Ginkgoopsida, order Ginkgoales, family Ginkgoaceae, genus Ginkgo and is the only extant species within this group. It is one of the best-known examples of a living fossil, because Ginkgoales other than G. biloba are not known from the fossil record after the Pliocene.
For centuries it was thought to be extinct in the wild, but is now known to grow in at least two small areas in Zhejiang province in Eastern China, in the Tian Mu Shan Reserve. However, recent studies indicate high genetic uniformity among ginkgo trees from these areas, arguing against a natural origin of these populations and suggesting that the ginkgo trees in these areas may have been planted and preserved by Chinese monks over a period of about 1000 years. Whether native ginkgo populations still exist has not been demonstrated unequivocally.
The relationship of Ginkgo to other plant groups remains uncertain. It has been placed loosely in the divisions Spermatophyta and Pinophyta, but no consensus has been reached. Since Ginkgo seeds are not protected by an ovary wall, it can morphologically be considered a gymnosperm. The apricot-like structures produced by female ginkgo trees...