A Living Fossil Goes to Seed

Ginkgo biloba seedsI saw a photo of Queen Elizabeth last month, dressed in pink with a matching pink hat, marking the 250th anniversary of the Royal Botanic Gardens by wielding a shovelful of dirt onto the base of a newly planted Ginkgo biloba tree.  In April, I read that Governor Schwarzenegger celebrated Earth Day by helping to plant a ginkgo tree in California.  These surviving relics date from the Permian period, over 270-300 million years ago, where the great forests of fern-like plants shifted to gymnosperms with offspring enclosed in seeds. The ginkgo actually predates the Age of Dinosaurs.

Two of these majestic trees, large and sturdy, grace the edge of my pond overlooking the river and a third, the runt, underdeveloped and frail, stands apart near the drive.  All three are approaching 40 years of age, mere babies for they can can live for a millennium.   When we first occupied this property, I fussed over the runt like a frail child.  Fertilizer. Water. Compost.  No response.  I eventually left it alone to grow ever so slowly until three years ago when I noticed unusual growths on the tree.  Those formations were the beginnings of seeds.  My runt had been a female all along and was finally fertilized by my robust males by the pond.  In her prime at age 36 she began to produce and drop marble-sized seeds. Dozens fall to the ground each summer and by spring, a large number of offshoots appear beneath her boughs.

Like rotting fruit under a tree, the ripe flesh around the seeds give off a pungent odor, a smell that suggests overripe cheese in my opinion.  Sadly, for this reason, the male is the preferred tree, an unfortunate fact that may impact future survival of the tree as it has made a plant endangered list.  I love my tiny ginkgo offspring and make them available for friends and neighbors who would like to adopt a baby… sex unknown for 30-plus years.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

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