This past October was a very exciting month for me. There is no denying that my favorite tree is Ginkgo. The obvious answers as to why would be its perseverance over time, remarkable yellow fall color, deeply furrowed bark and its unique fan-like foliage. Ginkgo biloba has been around since the dinosaurs and is able to adapt to just about any environment, including the concrete jungle of Manhattan. For me though, my fascination came when I was introduced to this tree at a very young age. A competitive runner in my youth, I competed in a cross-country race, in my early teens, in Van Cortlandt Park, Bronx New York. At the end we were all given t-shirts littered with different types of leaves on it. I asked my father, who I lost when I was young, what the funny leaf was…. “Ginkgo” he replied.
The beginning of October my wife and I spent a few days in Sonoma and Napa California. Traveling with my long time friend and mentor Tony Maiello from Metropolitan Plant Exchange and his friend, soon to be ours, Brenda Levron we took in the sights and imbibed some of nature’s best offerings. Three of the four traveling here are involved in the garden center industry, thus plants are very important to us. Tony picked a few of the wineries we visited, one offering great wines and a remarkable garden. Enjoying their famed Brut de Noirs (Bubbles) we took in all the great design that the late Thomas Church had left for us. Rare plants with an emphasis on leaf color and texture, it was a Parrotia tree’s emergence of fall color I think I will remember most. And while this garden and winery offered a complete experience, nurturing much of what we hold dear, it was the driveway at Far Niente in Napa Valley that had me speechless. Acacia Drive, the road leading to this winery’s gate set the scene. A slightly curvaceous allée of nearly 200 Autumn Gold Ginkgo, Ginkgo biloba ‘Autumn Gold’ backed with fields of cabernet sauvignon was a goose bump experience. Thankfully I was there to enjoy it fully with my wife and friend. I later learned that Gil Nickel, past owner of Far Niente helped run his family’s business, Greenleaf Nursery in Oklahoma with his brother. Today Greenleaf Nursery is one of the largest commercial nurseries in the United States. Clearly a man with a vision, who knew plants, this family apparently reveres Ginkgo the way I do. Can you imagine an allée of Ginkgo, in the autumn months, offering up their butter-yellow fall foliage in the succession of nearly 200… I can now!
As a member of The New York Botanical Garden, I learned of an event being held in mid-October. Fast-forward to Sotheby’s on October 16th in New York City. Generously underwritten and hosted by Sotheby’s, the evening’s distinguished lecturer was Professor Peter Crane. . “Sotheby’s is a global auctioneer of authenticated fine art, decorative art and jewelry. The company operates in three segments: Auction, Finance and Dealer” (The New York Times). Inspired by the historic Ginkgo that has thrived in London’s Kew Gardens since the 1760’s, Professor Peter Crane was there to talk about Ginkgo’s and in so doing made reference to his work Ginkgo: The Tree That Time Forgot. Professor Crane’s impressive resume includes: Distinguished Counsellor to the Board of The New York Botanical Garden, Dean and Professor of Botany at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, past director of the Field Museum in Chicago and from 1999-2006 he was director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. He is also a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and he was knighted in the U.K. for services to horticulture and conservation. This evening had me with my friend; wingman and long time mentor John Stella. I invited John to attend this lecture a month in advance and we both sat embedded amongst some 300 people.
Professor Crane opened by posing the question, if the celebrated Ginkgo in Kew could talk… what would it say? After all it has seen George III and watched over Virginia Woolf’s shoulder as she wrote about wisteria. Ginkgo biloba, with its elegant yet simple leaf, has two lobes in adolescence, yet as it matures the leaf seems to be entire. Professor Crane went on to describe Ginkgo’s common names; duck foot referring to its leaf and silver apricot referencing the seed. And while the fleshiness of the seed can have an overwhelming odor as it decays, Frank Lloyd Wright, despite his said constant complaining, built his home around it, yielding to his Ginkgo’s presence. Crane could offer no explanation as to the reason for the pungent smell of female fruit, however he did make reference to a reproductive aberration stating male trees could produce seeds on rare occasions… a most curious fact. At one time there were many species of Ginkgo, we are now left with only one. Even the southern hemisphere had its share complete with deeply divided lobes on their leaves. Indeed Tyrannosaurus rex ran amongst these prehistoric trees and believe it or not they look much the same way today as they did then. Ginkgo is seen as a symbol of hope, surviving the atomic bomb. Today Ginkgo is a success story for conservation, it can be seen as a brand and it crosses generations. In so doing, it has been coined the grandfather grandchild tree.
Gardening is an exercise in patience (Martha Stewart Living October 2013 Page 140). No group of words could better describe this deciduous conifer that looked extinction in the face, smiled and with the help of people came back stronger than ever. Looking ahead, Andrew Bell, Ph.D., the curator of woody plants at Chicago’s Botanic Garden even has Ginkgo listed as a tree for 2050. A study of suitable trees for a warming midwestern climate, Ginkgo’s future looks reassuring.