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  • LEFT: A close-up view of the buttery-yellow leaves of the ginkgo. Photo by: Richard Bloom. RIGHT: Ginkgo trees outside a pagoda at the Itsukushima Shrine on Miyajima Island, Japan. Photo by: Christian Kober/Robert Harding World Imagery/Getty Images.
  • Pedestrians walk along Meiji Jingu Gaien, a promenade lined with ginkgo trees in Tokyo, Japan, that provides spectacular displays of fall color. Photo by: Claire Takacs Photography.

Many of us can’t wait for the autumn show of the Ginkgo biloba (maidenhair tree), which tends to peak just before the buttery-yellow leaves fall all at once, as if they’d planned a dead-of-night drop and one of them said, “ready, set, go.” Considered a living fossil and one of the world’s most historic and distinctive trees, the ginkgo is also one of the most reliable and common street trees, from New York to London to Tokyo (it’s one of the most widely planted trees in Japan). Some people also appreciate the ginkgo’s culinary and medicinal uses or its inspiration to art and spirituality.

Then there’s Professor Sir Peter Crane, a botanist and evolutionary biologist at Yale University, who has taken ginkgo appreciation and study—and fandom—to new depths and lengths, literally around the globe. What he describes as his “multiyear obsession with this very special tree” has led to a book called Ginkgo: The Tree That Time Forgot (Yale University Press, 2013). It’s a serious scientific monograph, but hardly dry. It also reads like an unabashed fan letter to the ginkgo and a meditation on the relationship between plants and people. A sampling of chapter titles shows his range: Time, Energy, Sex, Origins, Persistence, Extinction, Reprieve, Gardens, Nuts, Streets, Pharmacy, Legacy.

SIX WAYS WITH GINKGOS

Photo by: Richard Bloom.

An approximately 80-year-old G. biloba bonsai at Royal Horticultural Society’s Wisley Garden at the peak of its autumn color.

Photo by: Doreen Wynja.

G. biloba plays well with Berberis thunbergii f. atropurpurea, Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘Filifera Aurea’, and Centaurea montana.

Photo by: Rob Cardillo.

G. biloba ‘Saratoga’ at the Scott Arboretum espaliered on a stone wall.

Photo by: Marianne Majerus.

G. biloba and Miscanthus sinensis ‘Malepartus’ are a dazzling duo in the fall.

Photo by: Doreen Wynja.

G. biloba ‘Troll’ is particularly suited to containers, growing up to 3 feet tall.

Photo by: Rob Cardillo.

Fresh or dried ginkgo leaves can be used in teas. Here, a G. biloba ‘Princeton Sentry’ leaf.

AMAZING GINKGO

Gleaned from Peter Crane's book and interviews with him, here are just some of the reasons why Ginkgo biloba is one of the most historic, distinctive, interesting—and weirdest—trees.

  • Ancient ginkgo relatives date back more than 200 million years, based on fossils found in Asia, Europe, South Africa, Australia, North America, and even the Arctic.
  • About a hundred ginkgos in China may approach a thousand years old, and are considered to be the oldest living ginkgos. Many were planted around temples or shrines, where they were protected. The Grand Ginkgo King, in the village of Li Jiawan, is nearly 100 feet tall with a trunk about 19 feet across at ground level.
  • Wild ginkgo trees are rare, but ancient ginkgos grow “in what appears to be a more or less wild situation” in China. The best place to see what are thought to be wild trees is Tianmu Mountain National Nature Reserve, 172 miles from Shanghai.
  • What is believed to be the oldest living ginkgo in North America (planted in Philadelphia in 1785) was a gift from botanist William Hamilton to naturalist John Bartram. The tree still survives in Bartram’s Garden, a historic site open to the public.
  • The best landscape planting, according to Crane, is the double allée of more than 140 beautifully manicured ginkgos, 100 years old, along the so-called “Ginkgo Avenue” of the Meiji Jingu shrine’s outer garden in Tokyo. When the trees are in fall color, “Sightseers come to admire the view, eat roasted ginkgo nuts, and take tea as the late-afternoon light fades away and winter approaches.”
  • “Ginkgo has the most synchronized leaf drop of any tree I know,” writes Crane. Poet Howard Nemerov describes the leaf drop: “The golden and green leaves litter the lawn today, that yesterday had spread aloft their fluttering fans of light. What signal from the stars?”

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