Friday, December 11, 2009
A surprising find: the Ginkgo tree
As one who takes daily walks along Carlisle’s back roads and through its conservation lands, I am sometimes astounded that I suddenly “see” something that has inexplicably escaped my notice for years. In early November, the late afternoon light illuminated a shapely tree setting it ablaze amidst a tangle of undergrowth and I needed to know what the tree with the unusual leaves and knobby branches was. It is the phenomenon that John Stilgoe describes in Outside Lies Magic – that the exotic and the exceptional are often close at hand and all one has to do is slow down and look to become aware.
When my boys were young, I took them on walks to visit the Labrador retrievers raised by Dorothy Barghoorn on the corner of Bingham Road and Cross Street. The reward for pushing the stroller up the half-mile of hill was a visit with the dogs and views of the high, open fields. Then I noticed the many different lilacs but not the mystery tree that in those days must have been an even more prominent front lawn landscape feature.
My tree guide with the broken spine was no help, but the new Sibley Guide to Trees I’d just borrowed from the library gives a fascinating description. It is a Ginkgo tree. Yes, the source of Ginkgo biloba extract. Besides its visual interest and purported health-enhancing properties, the Ginkgo is a unique and venerable tree. Fossil records indicate that the tree dates back 270 million years. Given this extraordinary adaptability, it is not surprising that, according to Sibley, “Four Ginkgo trees about a mile from the 1945 atomic bomb blast at Hiroshima, Japan were among the very few living things that survived.”
Actually, it is fitting that a Ginkgo, nicknamed “fossil tree,” would be growing in the Barghoorns’ yard. Dr. Elso Barghoorn was a renowned Harvard paleobotanist credited with fossil discoveries which pushed back estimates of the origin of life on earth. What more appropriate tree could he have selected to plant outside his front door? One wonders if he brought his Ginkgo home from an archeological dig in some far-flung part of the world or purchased it locally.
For two decades, the Ginkgo has signaled the change of seasons in front of the empty farmhouse that has gradually disappeared behind evergreen shrubbery, now tree height. Season after season, the fists of fan-shaped Ginkgo leaves shimmer as spring breezes roll over the hilltop, shade the west side of the house from the summer sun, and briefly turn a uniform golden yellow in early November. The silhouette of the knobby branches against the winter sky adds interest to the black and white world. Perhaps it is those distinctive branches that keep the bittersweet vines, which are overtaking the lilacs and other trees, away from the Ginkgo.
Next spring, I will be pushing the stroller of my first grandchild up the hill to the place where the overgrown fields, abandoned farm buildings and Ginkgo tree speak of the past. In time, this special place undoubtedly will succumb to development pressures, but I do hope that the Ginkgo survives, as it has through the ages, despite all odds. ∆
© 2009 The Carlisle Mosquito