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Summer ginkgo leaves, Mount Pleasant Road, Hastings, by Joan Taylor-Rowan

The Glorious Ginkgo

Tree Correspondent Joan Taylor-Rowan discovers an ancient super-survivor on the busy streets of Hastings.

Latin name: Ginkgo biloba
Common names: Ginkgo, Maidenhair tree, Fossil tree
Location: Mount Pleasant Road – street trees; Alexandra Park, near the Peace Garden; London Road entrance to Gensing Gardens, St Leonards-on-Sea.

Have you ever popped into Holland & Barrett or Trinity wholefoods for some Ginkgo capsules?  If you can remember – then they probably worked. The Ginkgo Biloba, commonly known as the ginkgo or maidenhair tree is an ancient deciduous tree, indigenous to China where it’s valued for its medicinal properties.

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon from Unsplash

Chinese medicine practitioners prescribe it for a variety of circulatory ailments, including sexual dysfunction and memory disorders. It wasn’t until the 1950s that western scientists began to examine these claims and it’s currently undergoing extensive testing for its ability to help people with dementia and the side-effects of anti-depressants. The scientific jury is still out, but it’s widely available as a supplement.

Photo of fan-shaped ginkgo leaves, by Joan Taylor-Rowan

Although fossil leaves of this family have been found dating back 270 million years, the ginkgo biloba is the only surviving member, hence its other common name, the fossil tree. The tree was brought to Europe in the early 1700s by a German botanist, Engelbert Kaempfer, who worked for the Dutch East India Company. He acquired seeds by way of Japan, where the tree was widely cultivated – ginkgo nuts are still served alongside the alcoholic drink, saki, as a hangover cure. They were pounced on by enthusiastic European gardeners and planted in public parks, botanical gardens and private estates. Although a common tree in much of China, it was thought to be extinct in the wild until 2012, when populations were found clinging on in the southern mountains.

The ginkgo is dioecious, it has separate male and female trees, but is highly unusual in its method of fertilisation – a free swimming male sperm reaches the ovule through a film of water. This is a method found in ferns but in no other tree living today. If you want one for your garden, buy a male tree; the yellow fruits produced on the female tree have a rancid smell – although it does take 40-50 years for the first flowers and fruits to appear. The tree can grow to 35m and live for 3000 years. While they are widely cultivated in Europe and USA, they are seldom naturalized.

Photo of ginkgo leaf by J Lee from Unsplash

The fan-shaped leaves are similar to those of the maidenhair fern (after which the ginkgo got its other common name). In autumn they turn a stunning yellow. Jewellers celebrate the leaves in elegant earrings and pendants and it was a widely used image in art nouveau.

The nuts, have been eaten as food, and used for ceremonial purposes and even as currency. The wood, which isn’t particularly strong, is used for decorative objects and to line Buddhist temples. But the glory of the ginkgo is its resilience. Able to tolerate a range of temperatures, insect predation, pollution and confined spaces, it’s perfectly suited to the urban environment. As a result, it makes a great street tree (its used extensively for this purpose in the Eastern USA where it’s one of the most common trees).

Autumn ginkgos by Sq Lim from Unsplash

There is a huge ginkgo opposite the Peace Garden in Alexandra Park and Hastings’ Parks and Gardens Department have planted a number along Mount Pleasant Road near the Elphinstone Road roundabout. There are a couple near the London Road entrance to Gensing Gardens too, so if you’re near any of these places, take a look.

But the super-survivor gingko can cope with more than just a few big trucks and traffic jams. In 1923 a massive earthquake struck close to Tokyo causing huge damage and catastrophic fires. It was noticed however, that of all the trees, the ginkgo survived in the greatest numbers. Re-planting efforts after the earthquake focused on the fire-resistant ginkgo and thousands were planted throughout Japan. Then, on August 6th 1945, the the ginkgo faced the ultimate test of survival when America dropped the atom bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. The centre of the blast was as hot as the surface of the sun, with winds twelve times stronger than a typhoon. Eighty thousand people were killed instantly and many more died from radiation sickness and injuries. However, six ginkgo trees less than 2km from the site (two in temple gardens), charred and stripped of their leaves by the blast, exposed to the deadly black rain and the radiation, miraculously began to bud again the following spring, and have continued to do so ever since. The layers of thick bark protected what has been described as “a cylinder of living cells deep within the trunk”. These cells were able to recover, nurtured by deep root networks untouched by the blast.

Photo of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial with ginkgo on right by Rap Dela Ray, from Unsplash

These honoured and celebrated ginkgos, join 170 other “Hibakujumoku” – survivor trees, or A-bombed trees, which lived through the blast at Hiroshima. They stand as a monument to the power of nature to endure the worst that humanity can throw at it. Seeds of these Hiroshima ginkgos have been planted around the world as symbols of peace and resilience.

It’s often said, that the only thing that will survive a nuclear war will be cockroaches. I find it consoling to think that the ginkgos might be there too, in all their hopeful splendour – even though human recklessness means we won’t be there to admire them.

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Posted 22:44 Sunday, Jul 17, 2022 In: Green Times

Also in: Green Times

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