Election Section

Ginko Trees: Exotic Old Souls Flourish on Berkeley Streets: By RON SULLIVAN

Special to the Planet
Tuesday November 02, 2004

There’s a pretty row of ginkgo trees along the curve where Shattuck Avenue meets Henry Street in North Berkeley, and shorter rows and isolated specimens elsewhere around town. 

New ones are being planted in auspicious places like the walk next to Berkeley High’s big new building, and along Shattuck near the Berkeley Bowl. I’m all for it, myself; this is one exotic that I can get behind.  

Its species, Ginkgo biloba, is pretty much extinct in the wild, and its relatives are even longer gone; it’s the only living member of its genus and family and order. Its brethren’s distinctive leaves show up in the fossil record in several variations, though, as far back as the Permian. 

These trees saw the dinosaurs come and go. Assuming the dinosaurs have indeed gone. The school of thought that sees latter-day birds as dinosaurs keeps coming up with new evidence for that. It’s an interesting debate, and still more interesting when you watch the winter immigrants, the warblers and white-crowns, sheltering in the young representatives of so old a life form.  

That we still have ginkgoes with us is one of a few hopeful stories of our interactions with other species. Like North America’s Franklinia alatamaha, ginkgo lives on because people love it and have planted it in their gardens; in this case, around monasteries in China and Japan.  

I like the tree’s attitude. It’s dignified and graceful at the same time. Its pale bark is pretty; its winter profile is distinctive (and it’s easy to identify in winter, with those peglike leaf attachments); its leaves turn a gorgeous, cheerful gold in fall, even in our mild climate. Isn’t it a treat to see a gilded ginkgo spotlighted by a late-afternoon sun against a backdrop of lead-gray fogbank?  

Ginkgoes can get big, but it seems generally to take them a long time to do it, so they’re a civilized city tree. They habitually shed their leaves in a very short time, almost all at once, which is handy for raking and it’s neat to see one standing in a golden circle that it’s spread around itself overnight. They seem to be tough as regards smog, too; maybe they’re just renewing old acquaintances with the fossils in those fossil fuels. They don’t have a lot of pest problems, either—maybe because they’ve outlived those species too. 

It’s not just an old soul; it’s a weird one in many ways. It’s two-sexed, which is fortunate for civic virtue, I guess. Most of the trees you’ll meet are males, selected because the females bear fruit that looks and feels disconcertingly like a bit of human earlobe and smells like dog droppings. The seed’s edible, and you can buy them at specialty groceries and “roast lightly,” whatever that means. I’m keeping an eye on the menus at Japanese restaurants, where they turn up in chawan-mushi or grilled or boiled to accompany sake, Beer Nuts-fashion.  

But the male’s half of the equation is strange, too, though harder to observe. Unlike nearly all plants, ginkgoes have motile sperm—it swims, like an animal’s. It also hangs out on the surface of the ovule from fall till spring, and then it does its fertilizing thing. Vegetable love indeed—a quarter of a year’s foreplay? 

Maybe that’s a subconscious reason for thinking that ginkgo makes you smart. It seems to be in fashion recently—is it for memory enhancement? I forget. I think the jury’s still out about whether it’s the scholar’s tree because it has brain-enhancing qualities, or there’s a placebo effect of the sort that makes incense a meditation aid. I’m not sure I care, myself, because the tree’s aesthetic qualities are so good. It’s somehow almost crass to think it needs to have some utilitarian medicinal role, too. 

That it’s a symbol of longevity does seem to have absolutely practical roots, though. Not only does it age slowly; it survives serious insults. Several ginkgoes survived the atomic blast at Hiroshima, including one just over a thousand meters from Ground Zero, by a temple that was destroyed. That tree budded out the following spring, and is alive today. Maybe the species will survive even us. ›