Welcome back once again to Wildlife Rambles! Though the term “wildlife” is most often used to refer to only animals, it can also be used in reference to the flora of an area, and this month I’ll be teaching you all about the ginkgo tree! Also known as the maidenhair tree or Ginkgo biloba, this fascinating specimen dates back over 200 million years with fossils having been found from the Jurassic period. The name is a misinterpretation of the Chinese word “ginyo,” meaning “silver apricot” named after its distinctive fruit. Called “the living fossil” by Charles Darwin, the ginkgo now has no other living relatives in its family; however, it has spread to almost every continent and is a popular ornamental and city tree. The tree is native to eastern China and has been cultivated for thousands of years, though it wasn’t introduced to North America until the 18th century by botanists.
The ginkgo is a highly resilient tree; it is practically immune to pests, fungal, viral and bacterial diseases, is resistant to pollution and individuals may live for millennia and grow up to 100 feet tall. Four to six ginkgos even survived the bombing of Hiroshima and still stand today as symbols of hope.
In addition to its unique history, the ginkgo tree is also well-known for its fruit. Only produced by female ginkgos, the fruit’s fleshy exterior rots once fallen and smells similar to rancid butter or vomit due to its butyric acid content. The smell of the rotting fruit has also been described as being similar to that of rotting flesh or feces. The nut and fruit of the ginkgo have long been used in Chinese medicine and cuisine, so the female tree is much more popular in Asian countries.
The smell can come as an unpleasant surprise due to the fact that male and female ginkgos are indistinguishable to the naked eye except by their fruit, which does not appear until the female matures after 20-35 years. Botanist Peter Crane, former dean of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, says about the smell that, “More than likely, it reflects some sort of adaptation or modification in its dispersal biology. Probably either now or in the past the smell has been attractive to animals. … The interesting question is, are the things that adapted to disperse it still around? Or are they extinct?”
On Salem’s campus there are three examples of this tree, all male: one behind Strong and Babcock dormitories by the road down to the pit, one on the edge of the FAC parking lot by God’s Acre and one (my favorite) between the FAC and the May Dell. They are easily identified this time of year by their vibrant, fan-like yellow leaves – most of which are likely to fall after the first frost. I highly encourage you to go out and find one of these ginkgos to experience the timeless beauty of the oldest tree on Earth.