One of the real treats of our new house is a different sort of tree growing behind the mailbox in the front yard. I knew I'd seen one of these trees before, and it was true (after I shook some dust out of the memory banks) that I'd had one just like it in a yard in Memphis a long, long time ago. You don't see that many of them down here, so you don't soon forget those fan-shaped leaves. The split in the fan is the "biloba" in the tree's name. Ginkgo means "silver fruit" in Chinese. Everywhere else, it means "stinky fruit." More about that later.
The tree's origin is said to be older than the first appearance of most of the plants and flowering trees that we see around us today. Some have guessed that these trees have been around for more than 200 million years, when Jurassic Park was more than a bunch of special effects and conjecture. Its biology is quite unique. It is not a coniferous tree nor is it a deciduous tree, even though it does drop its leaves each year. Botanists had to huddle and come up with a new category, and now it's known as a deciduous gymnosperm. Gymnosperm means "naked seeds," which implies that the seed is not enclosed in some sort of fruit. Instead, the seeds are protected by cones or a fleshy seed coat.
For those of you living in that human crock pot known as New York City, you could meander (but that's not done in NYC, is it? How about, "You could hustle. . . " ) down to Fifth Avenue. There's some really old ginkgo trees there. They are incredibly resistant to the plagues of modern life, such as smog and disease. Since these trees in NYC are quite old, they are the females which bear the stinky fruit everyone bitches about when it lies on the ground and decays. There's a joke in there somewhere about this male/female deal with this tree, but I'm not going to reach down in the gutter for it. The ginkgo is probably the oldest living tree on the planet and deserves better than my shallow attempts at making fun of the girls of the world on this issue.
The fact is that the tree out here in my yard is a male, as are most ginkgoes which were planted anytime in the past few decades for landscaping purposes. The males don't come with the stinky fruit problem. (. . . must . . . resist . . . ) and make better choices for those who don't want the neighborhood kids calling the tree in your yard the "cum tree" or some even worse appellation. The boys are grown from winter transplanted cuttings and can grow to a turgid 100 feet tall, without ever shedding stinky fruit number one or number two.
These stinky fruits in the girl trees' annual drop fest are roasted by the Chinese and eaten like nuts. Or, they are made into powders and pastes for medicinal purposes. I'm sure you've heard of the ginkgo biloba fad at the hippie grocery store near you.
There is only one stand of wild ginkgoes left on the planet. They are in a small part of Eastern China. All the other ginkgoes you see have been placed there by man; such as the one in my yard. Had the Asian folks not been taken with the symbolic nature of the golden leaves falling all at once in the fall and the medicinal properties of the tree, they would likely have disappeared by now.
As I said, the tree is pretty darn hardy. If it's as old as they say, and it originated from where most believe, it has to have survived the glacial period over 2 million years ago in China. Not only is it highly resistant to disease, insects, pollution, etc. but it is also the only plant which survived the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. It is said that one of the few surviving plant forms at Hiroshima is the ginkgo. In the 1600s, a tea-master named Sen Sotan planted a ginkgo outside his tea house in Konnichian. Years later, a fire raged through Kyoto. Supposedly, snow atop the ginkgo, melted by the flames, wet the roof and saved the tea house. So, in late November, tea ceremony students gather at Konnichian and eat sweets made of powered stinky fruits from the girl tree which saved the tea house. The tea cups even have a little ginkgo leaf symbol on them. There's one tree in China's Hebei Province in a village called Quinhuangdao which is thought be 2,800 years old. The trunk has a perimeter of over 13 feet and its crown covers around 25,000 square feet. So, as you can plainly see, it's like the cockroach of the tree world.
They say it's been "scientifically proven" (I've always wondered just what that meant; I wonder if the Nazis used that term when discussing their so-called Jewish problem?) that this miracle of stinky ginkgo biloba fruit can stimulate the memory and improve circulation. I'll have to let you folks who shop at the hippie grocery store tell me if that's right or not. I'm not into this fascination with the tree for medicinal purposes. I can medicate myself just fine without its help.
What fascinates me is the unique nature of the ancient beast (it's said to be the sole living link between the lower and higher plants, between ferns and conifers) and the way it amazes you in the fall. The leaves will (if this one works like the one I lived with in Memphis so long ago) turn a bright golden color and then, one day, BOOM (say it like John Madden), they all fall at once. The leaves will form a circular golden carpet underneath the tree, as if awaiting an Oriental dignitary from some place in its primal memory banks. The legends concerning the tree say that Buddhist monks in eastern Chinese mountains, either transplanting cuttings of the boys or planting those stinky seeds of girls, grew them inside their monastery walls a thousand years ago, until English botanists took the seeds back to England. This is supposedly how the tree came to be spread around the globe. Assuming that it was Buddhist monks who are responsible for the survival of the tree, the fallen leaves are sometimes called "the fingernails of Buddha."
So, I've got a dog which comes from Tibet and my new tree comes from China. I'm feeling all Oriental, and (yet) still just a little bit country at the same time. I'm going to set my folding redneck cloth chair from Sam's Club up underneath this tree one day soon and let those golden petals fall on me all at once while I drink a few cold ones. (Of course the chair has a beverage holder!) I expect clarity in that short window of time. If I can keep my damn dog from barking. She doesn't like surprises.