Ginkgo: The Tree That Time Forgot

Peter Crane. Yale University Press, 2013. 408 pages. $40.00.

Short Listed for the 2014 Phi Beta Kappa Book Award in Science

By LaiYee Leong

Most people recognize the ginkgo by its unusual fan-shaped leaves and smelly seeds. Peter Crane would have us know it for far more striking reasons. Among other things, the common street tree is the oldest tree in the world and has borne witness to evolutionary time. It also has a venerated place in human cultural history. Encyclopedic in breadth and depth, this “global biography” of the ginkgo is an elegant account infused with the writer’s sense of wonderment for his subject. Reading it will likely make you seek out the nearest specimen to appreciate it anew.

Crane explains why the ginkgo holds fascination for botanists, doing so accessibly for the non-specialist. Whether it is the architecture of its water supply or its varied ways of propagation, we learn the tree possesses curious features that set it apart. In fact, the ginkgo has no close surviving plant relative. Scientists call the ginkgo a “living fossil;” it has persisted genetically almost unaltered from the age of dinosaurs. Few other trees including the famed redwood even come close. One does not need to be a naturalist to be awed by a tree that connects us to our prehistoric past. But even as ginkgo fossils reveal much about vast geological and biological changes over more than 200 million years, the living tree itself still presents some mysteries. Crane effectively relates the excitement of ongoing research and unfolding discoveries.

Crane enlivens his meticulous botanical descriptions by weaving through them an engaging narrative about scientists from many places who have advanced knowledge about the ginkgo. Amidst the men, a portrait of Marie Stopes stands out. The youngest doctor of science in Britain when few women had career prospects at the turn of the 20th century, Stopes made breakthrough observations related to the ginkgo. (She later became far better known for her pioneering and controversial work on family planning.) Crane himself belongs to that long line of esteemed botanists; a species called the ginkgo cranei is named after him. Crane writes of his own unexpected discovery of ginkgo fossils in North Dakota and the thrill of prying out their secrets. 

It is fitting that people should figure prominently in the ginkgo’s tale. Yet another reason the ginkgo is singular is that, in a refreshing twist, it endures not despite of, but because of, human intervention. Crane shows the tree has had extensive associations with people for at least a millennium. Cultivated for its nuts for food and its leaves for medicine, the ginkgo earned a reprieve from the extinction that afflicted its close relatives. In addition to its usefulness, the tree’s survival can also be attributed to its adoption by Buddhist temples as a religious symbol. Attaining iconic status in East Asian culture, the ginkgo is revered for its “vitality, longevity, and resilience.” Crane also traces the spread of the ginkgo to Europe and America some 300 years ago, where it was initially cultivated for its exotic value and then for its hardiness. It has since flourished and become seemingly mundane. More recently, its pharmaceutical potential has won it new fans.  

Organized into digestible chapters of only a handful of pages each, this veritable ode to the ginkgo has wide appeal. Crane writes with an authenticity that conveys why he finds this tree so noteworthy. Discussing the ginkgo’s future and legacy, the final chapters make it clear, however, that this book is much more than the story of a tree. The ginkgo is only one among others in the plant kingdom holding the secrets to the origins of the natural world. For Crane, “letting species go extinct when we have the power to intervene is like letting the library burn just as we are learning how to read the books.” The ginkgo’s successful revival suggests positive human action can still make a difference at a time when the natural environment faces serious threats. We are given the pleasure of knowing more about just one tree, and stirred to reflect on all we stand to lose.

LaiYee Leong is an associate research fellow at the John G. Tower Center for Political Studies at Southern Methodist University. Southern Methodist is home to the Gamma of Texas chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.