On a Sunday morning drive, I picked up a living fossil. Sold from a tiny untended stall by the road, along with pumpkins and overripe apples, a young gingko tree. Barely half a meter tall sapling, with the number of leaves I could count on my fingers. A hand-drawn tag said EUR1.50. I thought it was a mistake. The price of a pumpkin? There was no one around to ask.
There were two saplings. A particular scourge of mine – things coming in pairs. Things that I can barely afford/have space/attention/energy for. In my garden, two pussy willows, the last ones left on the supermarket shelf in the post-Easter sell-out, two cherry trees, an even number of acers. In the house, two birds. Although that’s a whole other story.
I took one sapling, which felt wrong, but then it felt wrong to take any. I cannot offer what this beautiful, mighty Jurassic survivor deserves. Gingkoes are mostly giant trees, growing to over 30 meters tall. I don’t have space for it, not next to my house, not on the allotment. The rules of the garden association don’t allow anything over 3.5 meters tall. (Gingko itself would laugh at this). Also, a gingko tree requires a sunny spot, especially to develop that gorgeous, buttery yellow autumn colour it is so famous for. I can’t promise it the space or the bright light or warm summers but then, not many people in this country can, so does this sapling have a better chance if I drive away? It felt equally wrong to leave it behind.
Gingko trees are not common here, even though the Netherlands was the first European country to welcome them from China in 1730s. An acquisition by Kew Gardens (inevitably) followed. It then travelled to Philadelphia and seemed to have found a new home. Gingkoes are now ubiquitous in some part of the US, often lining sidewalks in heavily polluted areas that other plants abhor. Gingko biloba, aka the maidenhair tree, has a whole genus to itself in the botanical world. It is also the only remaining representative of its family and order. Without a wild habitat of its own, we know it today only thanks to the centuries-long cultivation by Buddhist monks. In 200 million years, these strange creatures have stayed largely unchanged, as fossils show, yet they demonstrate a remarkable resistance and adaptability. Gingkoes have outlasted their natural pests and are not affected by any of the “modern” tree diseases. They play host to only one or two harmless insects (which arguably is not great for urban biodiversity). Gingko trees are the only living things to have survived Hiroshima. They seem indestructible. But that must be a lonely way to live.
Each individual tree lives incredibly long, too. Some trees in the old temple gardens of Japan and China are over 1,000 years old. But the first 10-15 years they go slowly. A young gingko is often irregularly shaped, a bit all over the place. They seem to hover for a while in a state of clumsy adolescence. Like ugly ducklings of the tree world, they are sometimes so gawky and stiff it is said that only a collector (or a mother) can love them. You never know what your youngster might do next. Throw a shoot at an awkward angle, contort a branch, twist the leaves around, or develop a separate mini version of itself on one side of the trunk. And then, at some point after a dozen years, there is a massive leap, the gingko really takes off, the growth accelerates. The tree changes shape, the tips of the branches droop gracefully, the canopy widens. The tree spreads its wings as it were.
But there are also different varieties in cultivation now. Our modern horticultural zeal to breed plants for a specific colour, shape, growth habit or light conditions, and of a size to fit our increasingly urban lifestyles, has managed to create dwarfs even from these pre-historic giants.
The elaborate, glossy label on my little tree provides all the required EU specifications, it almost seems like a passport. But it states, simply, “gingko biloba”. A “duh” moment – the leaf is quite unmistakable. The label also says the height after 10 years is 3 meters, an entirely meaningless timeframe in this case. The leaves of my sapling are curiously shaped, though, not quite in that “classic”, wide two-lobed fan. They are more elongated, with jagged edges, very deeply cut, like a pair of wedges joined at the base. I think it could be a Saratoga. Or Robbie’s Twist. Or it’s just being young and quirky.
By the virtue of their naked nuts, gingkoes are closely related to conifers. They are often found in all-conifer landscapes and usually sold by the same specialized nurseries. This must have been the case for my gingko, too. There were small balls sitting sulkily on the shelve next to it, dark green, spiky and tight, like little scared hedgehogs. The tiny conifers didn’t have a label at all. Maybe they were hedgehogs. One came home with us too. So, a pair after all.
I will grow them in pots, in the brightest spot I can find in the garden. But their eventual size and stature will stay a mystery. Which cultivars are these? Tall and columnar? Spreading? Droopy? How big will they grow? How wide the reach of the canopy? I am not about to find out.