Friday, 25 February 2011

Every plant has a story to tell; the Ginkgo has many*


“Every plant has a story to tell” is the new touchstone for our botanic gardens and the thinking behind our new branding, which you’ll see featured in our Sydney Morning Herald Autumn of the Arts program and on our website (a hint: the leaves of the tree are speech bubbles).

The Maidenhair Tree (Ginkgo biloba) is a tree with many stories. It’s common in cultivation all over the world but only known to grow naturally – or possibly naturally – in the Canton Provence of China. It was once thought to be extinct and this Canton population may have been planted, perhaps over 1000 years ago.

Ginkgo fossils occur all over the world, including in eastern Australia. Ginkgos, along with Wollemi Pine, would have been part of the scenery during the time of the dinosaurs.

The common name is a reference to its leaves which look like those of a maidenhair fern. The trees are particularly attractive in autumn, when the leaves are bright yellow, and in summer when its fresh lime-green leaves are very cooling.

The plant has many medicinal, culinary and spiritual uses and it’s a popular tree around palaces and temples in China and Japan. On a visit to the Royal Botanic Gardens last year, the Japanese Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Katsuya Okada, picked up a ginkgo fruit and peeled away the vomit-smelling flesh to show me the seed that can be boiled and eaten. He then offered up his hand up to say farewell, which I shook a little reluctantly – due to the persisting smell.

There is a lovely Ginkgo in the Botanic Garden at Montpellier, in southern France. This one was a gift from Joseph Banks to the director at the time, who kept it in his own garden during the revolution when zoos and botanic gardens were often ransacked. When Napoleon came to power he strongly supported the botanic garden and international science (including Joseph Banks), and requested it be planted in 1795.

Ginkgos are either male or female – the females produce the vomit-smelling fruit. In 1830, all but one tree in Europe was male and a cutting from that female tree in Geneva was acquired by the Director and grafted to this tree. The graft set fruit in 1835. Over 200 years later, this specimen has male and female branches.

In the same botanic garden there was also a 350 year-old specimen of Mock Privert (Phillyrea latifolia, in the olive family) with holes in its twisting trunk into which students stuff love notes. It’s thought that notes posted in the tree will help fulfil the wishers of the lover.

On my visit there the Professor of Medicine, and also head of the botanic gardens, removed one and read it to us. I’d tell you what it said but I don’t understand French.

*This Passion for Plants posting will also appear on the ABC Sydney website (under 'Weekends' or search 'gardening'), and is the gist of my 702AM radio interview with Simon Marnie on Saturday morning, between 9-10 am.


Image: The fruit of a Ginkgo in Sydney’s Botanic Gardens, before it emits its unpleasant smell

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