Book of the Month for Jun 2014

Ginkgo: The Tree That Time Forgot
Christine Flanagan

Ginkgo: The Tree That Time Forgot, by Peter Crane, Yale University Press (March 19, 2013); 408pp, 61 b/w illustrations, hardcover; publisher’s price: $40.00, Amazon price: $26.17.

Born and raised in the desert and transplanted to Virginia, I remember vividly my first encounter more than 30 years ago with a ginkgo: I was enraptured by the form, texture, venation, and color of the leaf, puzzled by tree’s odd growth form, and at once curious and repulsed by the putrid smelling nuts.  Above all, I wanted to know more about its life history.  Now comes Peter Crane’s “biography” of Ginkgo biloba, a labor of 10 years representing a lifetime of fascination and scholarship.  The book is a personal and compelling account of the species, its life history, evolution, cultural importance, historical context, value as a food and medicinal plant, and certified “rock star” status as the world’s oldest extant species of seed plant.  But the book is so much more.  Among its delightful nuggets are ginkgo’s connections to Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly, to Marie Stopes who leads the British movement for family planning and the revolution in women’s rights, and to the Dutch East India Company.  The book opens with Goethe’s poem about the leaf of ginkgo and we recognize his questions as our own. 

Crane has structured the book to be accessible and technical, grounded in hard science but presented in the context of human history, culture, and botanical mystery.  In 277 pages and 37 chapters (most can be read in one sitting), Ginkgo alternates between main character and background thread in a story that begins and ends with an appreciation for trees.  Crane shares with us a potent insight: “Encounters with trees punctuate the chapters of my life.”  He is a terrific writer, erudite and honest, without a trace of arrogance, and immanently readable.  For those who relish the details, his footnotes provide scholarly and human-interest information that supports the main text.  The photos and illustrations provide further insight.  The thoughtful epigraphs beginning each chapter are another window into the breadth of Crane’s perspective and will transport many readers to times past and places in their own lives.  This indeed is a book worth reading.

We learn about ginkgo and are beguiled into learning about plants in general.  Part II covers the biology of ginkgo, but we also come to appreciate the miracle of photosynthesis, the economics of energy allocation, the challenge of water use, and dynamics of growth as they apply to many (and especially woody) plants.  I was especially impressed by the chapters on reproduction.  The account of the discovery and evolutionary implications of motile sperm in ginkgo is fascinating.  The discussion on the evolution and ecology of dioecy delves into the consequences of having male and female functions on separate plants.  How sex is determined in plants is still mysterious, and the account of research at Blandy Experimental Farm by F. S. Santamour and others from the US National Arboretum may strike a chord with those in the mid-Atlantic.  His reference to the ginkgo plantation at Blandy (now also recognized as the State Arboretum of Virginia) is an invitation for all to see the spectacle of color and leaf drop that occurs there each fall.

Parts III and IV are a tour de force of the fossil record and its analysis relative to ginkgo.  The problems of fossil study, the dramatic appearance and disappearance of life forms that predate our modern flora and fauna, and the movement of the continents and changing world climate provide the backdrop for the 200 million-year saga of the rise, widespread abundance, astounding diversity, and eventual extinction of all but one species of ginkgo and its distant relatives.  The section concludes with a report of modern research using DNA sequencing to find the most genetically diverse of the putative remaining “wild” ginkgos.  The section on analyzing plant relationships includes a fearless account of the clash in the 1970s between paleontologists following traditional systematic methodology and those who were early converts to new approaches using cladistics.  I say fearless because this was nothing less than a revolution, in both practice and philosophy, and, as a graduate student on the sidelines at the time I can attest to the impassioned and sometimes brutal public exchanges.  

Part V showcases the breadth of Crane’s interests and scholarship.  It is packed with examples of ginkgo’s value and relationship to humans, including the route of ginkgo’s likely introduction to Japan, its association with Buddhism across millennia, its presence in myth and art, and early use of ginkgo nuts for food.  There is a fascinating story of the ginkgo nut found in the recovered cargo of the Shinan Ship, a trading vessel that sank in 1323 en route from China to Japan.  Crane teases out the complex origin of the name ginkgo, with its odd second g.  Many will appreciate the balanced and objective presentation on medicinal use of ginkgo.  Chapter 32 on street trees and the importance and suitability of ginkgo in the urban forest should be required reading for municipal tree committees.

Ginkgo is a survivor, its recent success due to humans.  With this perspective, Part VI concludes with current information on species at risk, both plants and animals, and examines the key factors and dynamics leading to extinction.  Crane’s review of the underlying philosophy and justification for conservation of biodiversity, and the strategies being pursued worldwide is succinct and powerful.  It is an excellent summary for the student, donor, board member or volunteer who wants to understand the global nature of the current mass extinction and disruption of natural ecosystems at human hands.  The section on the history and current status of the Convention on Biological Diversity is as sobering as it is bewildering, particularly in the unintended consequences of economic valuation of biodiversity.  The conclusion—that political boundaries bear little relationship to the conservation and environmental actions needed to preserve species—challenges us to find better ways to preserve biodiversity in order to preserve the quality of human life.  As Crane points out, in the end, it all comes down to time, and the compressed scale at which humans experience everyday life.  Instead, he encourages us to contemplate the life of trees and transcend the obvious: Through them we can see the path between past, present, and future.  We can marvel as they grow slowly but steadily into their own future.  We can emulate how they nurture their environment by cleansing the air, soil, and water.  We can study how they provide space for themselves and other forms of life at the same time.  Can we learn to live, and let live, as we make our place in the three billion-year-old-web of life? 

Christine Flanagan, PhD, recently retired as Director of Public Programs for the United States Botanic Garden.  She is a new member of NARGS and lives in Tucson, AZ.