Small compensation for unfulfilled Chinese ginkgo quest

Last year I had to cancel at the last minute a trip to Shanghai, where I was going to attend a meeting at the Chenshan Botanical Garden. As part of that trip I had hoped to visit one of the two possibly natural – that is, not cultivated by human – populations of Ginkgo biloba, the Maidenhair Tree, near Tianmu Mountain.

Ginkgo, as most people call it (with a soft first 'g' in China and a hard first 'g' in Australia), is a single species with a deep evolutionary history. It is the remaining member of a group of organisms sitting alongside conifers, cycads and flowering plants, but belonging to none of those groups. It looks like a flowering plant but has motile sperm rather than pollen (more like ferns, cycads and conifers), carried by the wind and needing to land of a drop of moisture to fertilise the female ovule. The ‘fruit’ contains a seed inside a hard outer coating, all within a yellow and stinky fleshy layer.

Reading further on the natural distribution of the ginkgo, including Peter Crane’s monograph on the species called Ginkgo: The Tree That Time Forgot, I discovered that the more likely purely natural population – and there is considerable debate – is to be found in the Jinfo Mountain area near Chongqing. These trees generate from seed and there is more genetic diversity here than anywhere else in China.

And so last week it was with great anticipation I joined the field trip associated with the Chinese Association of Botanic Gardens meeting in Chongqing to Jinfoshan, the Jinfo Mountain. I was in Chongqing as a guest of the Nanshan Botanical Garden, with whom I signed an MoU for cooperation with the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria. Yet again I was fortuitously placed to visit this fascinating plant in its home territory.

Sadly the weather, and my ability to communicate in Chinese, let me down.

As you can see, the weather was what we describe in Australia as ‘foul’. The entire mountain was enveloped in mist and a gentle to steady rain persisted for the entire time we walked along the summit paths.

It seems I was probably nowhere near to where to the ginkgo grow anyway, so hail or shine I would have not have achieved my goal. The ginkgo grows in a band around the mountain at 470-1,500 metres above sea level. We were wandering around in the mist at 2,100 metres above sea level (about the same height as Australia’s tallest peak, Mount Kosciuszko).

Of course, this being China there are some planted trees here and there, including here, not far from the start of the cable car to the summit, near to the welcoming sign at the top of this post. This may be as close as I get to a ginkgo in its natural habitat...

There are, according to the abstract of a paper by Li Jianwn from Beijing and his colleagues from the Medicinal Botanical Institute of Chongqing City (which I think may be different to the Chongqing Institute of Medicinal Plant Cultivation which I visited on the way to the mountain), 300 or so very old ginkgo trees in the area, at least 10 thought to be over a thousand years old. The oldest - called Ginkgo Empress – is estimated at 2,500 years and has a girth of 35 metres.

So, no naturally growing ginkgo for me, yet. On the return trip we stopped for dinner at a reconstructed village of the local ‘ethnic minority’. There we saw planted ginkgo, and also many penjing (bonsai) specimens, including various leaf-shape cultivars.

I read on a tourist website that ‘when sunshine falls on [Jinfo Mountain], it looks like a giant Buddha shining with boundless golden radiance, hence the name, which literally means Golden Buddha Mountain’, and that ‘the Golden Turtle Facing Sun Platform in the north’, which we visited, ‘is a mountain edge looking like a golden turtle in the light of the sun’. On my visit there was, sadly, no sunshine and therefore no visage of Buddha or a turtle. We did see the large natural caves, and through the mist a few local plant species.

No trip is ever wasted and I’m sure there is aphorism around leaving some things in life not experienced. In fact I expect the Chinese have a way of saying it quite pithily. But still, I hope to one day try again.