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Bookworm Festival Pulse: Ginkgo – The Tree That Time Forgot

Inspired by the historic ginkgo that has thrived in London’s Kew Gardens since the 1760s, renowned botanist Peter Crane has explored the history of the ginkgo from its origin, proliferation and spread across the planet, to its decline, near extinction and ultimate resurgence

Crane notes, in a presentation of his latest book Ginkgo, at this years Literary Festival in Beijing that the Ginkgo is easily recognizable from the peculiar shape of its leaves, split in the middle and met with a single stem so that each leaf appears torn, or as two joint together as one. And dawning its arrival in Europe it has since sheltered the likes of Virginia Woolf, and in 1815, incentivized the poet Goethe to give symbolic expression to his intense relationship with Marianne Willemer, by giving her a leaf from the ginkgo tree, explaining that, like its deeply cleft yet still whole leaf, he was “single yet twofold.”

The Ginkgo’s leaves are very heavy and are often used as compost. Most of which appear on tiny shoots formed a season before they bloom. The tree made its way to Europe in the 17th century through the botanist John Bradley Blake, who worked in China as a resident supercargo for the British East India Company and sent seeds of indigenous plants to great Britain for propagation. Blake Observed that While some plants simultaneously possessed both male and female reproductive parts, the Ginkgo’s had separate male and female plants from which the females are easily distinguished in the spring by their ovules which develop into large stinky seeds which can be roasted and eaten. Both male and female plants have strange downward growing branches resulting in what Sir Peter Crane describes as a tree that looks more like a thicket than a tree.

But Cranes explains that his love for The Ginkgo is not primarily based on his understanding of it as a Paleontologist, but from the ascetic appeal of its “brim stone yellow” leaves, its grand structure, paradoxically regal and commonplace, recognized mostly as a street tree. The Ginkgo is said to be one of the most famous tree’s in Manhattan. They are remarkably resilient, known in Japan to have survived Hiroshima and the fires of Tokyo.

From an evolutionary stand point, the modern Ginkgo as we know it has remained unchanged for the past 16,000 years. The Ginkgo can be traced back around 2 to 5 million years ago as the last remaining species of its group. Sir Peter Crane stresses that all varieties of plant life can be divided into five groups; Bryophytes (Mosses and liverwort), Pteridophytes (Ferns and horsetails), Gymnosperms (Conifers), Angiosperms (Flowering plants),  and Ginkgo (both a single species and the last remnant of an entire group). It has thus earned a peculiar place in our authors heart from which he has dedicated a period of his focus to document and explore The Tree That Time Forgot.

By Lethokuhle Msimang

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