Monday, April 15, 2013

Peter Crane's "Ginkgo: The Tree That Time Forgot"

Peter Crane is Carl W. Knobloch, Jr. Dean of the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and Professor of Botany at Yale University, and former director of The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, UK.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Ginkgo: The Tree That Time Forgot, and reported the following:
There is much that could be said about Ginkgo. It has one of the most fascinating evolutionary and cultural biographies of any tree (the focus of Ginkgo: The Tree That Time Forgot), but perhaps nothing is quite so stark as what comes through in one of the very few diagrams in the book, which just happens to fall on page 99!

On page 99 we see a simple classification of all the plants in the world into just twelve major groups. Just five of these are seed plants: cycads, with about 300 species, conifers with about 600 species, a strange group, the Gnetales, with about 100 species and flowering plants with about 350,000 species. The fifth “group” is Ginkgo - with its single living species Ginkgo biloba. So, in one sense Ginkgo is just one species among a few hundred thousand, but in another equally valid sense this singular species comprises a fifth of the diversity of all living seed plants.

To a botanist Ginkgo is an evolutionary treasure and one that we are fortunate to still have as part of the living world of plants. Once widespread across the planet, Ginkgo almost went extinct during the great Ice Ages and survived as a relic in only two places in China. Since then, and especially over the last 1,000 years, with the help of people, Ginkgo has been renewed. The nuts became a delicacy and were used for oil and in medicine. With its distinctive leaves and great longevity the tree also took on symbolic meaning in Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism and Shintoism. And in the eighteenth century Ginkgo was introduced from Asia to Europe and North America. In little more that 250 years, Ginkgo has returned to many of the places from which it had once been extinguished.

Today, interest in growing Ginkgo, what it stands for scientifically, and the ways in which it might be useful has never been higher. Ginkgo has become recognized as a valuable street tree and is widely planted in many of the world’s cities. It has also become the source of a multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical industry. At the same time it enriches our gardens and our lives. The biography of Ginkgo is a story of resilience and resurgence. It is a tree that people have saved and is a source of hope for other botanical biographies that are still being written.
Learn more about Ginkgo: The Tree That Time Forgot at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue