The remarkable journey of the ginkgo tree began 200 million years ago

Peter Crane, dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, will speak at the Polly Hill Arboretum about a tree rooted in prehistoric times.

The fan-shape leaves of this Ginkgo found behind the West Tisbury Library are just one of the many unique features of this ancient tree that goes back into the fossil record over 200 million years. — Photo courtesy of Polly Hill Arb

The ginkgo tree, several specimens of which may be found on Martha’s Vineyard, has a remarkable heritage that will be the subject of a talk by a man with his own distinguished background.

“People know that the tree is special in some ways,” said Sir Peter Crane. “It has an association with the East. It has an association with health, simplicity, and well-being. It is almost a tree that has a brand. It is distinctive.”

Distinctive indeed, the tree that Mr. Crane spoke of is Ginkgo biloba, the ginkgo tree, an ancient Asian tree. On Wednesday, August 19, Mr. Crane, the Carl W. Knobloch Jr. Dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, will speak about its remarkable history at the Polly Hill Arboretum in West Tisbury.

The talk is titled, “The Ginkgo Tree Through History,” and it will draw from Mr. Crane’s book, “Ginkgo: The Tree that Time Forgot,” published by Yale University Press in 2013.

“The book is a cultural biography of a remarkable tree,” Mr. Crane said in a telephone conversation from Yale. “It is a life story of 200 million years.”

In his talk, Mr. Crane will lead people on a journey through those 200 million years. He will describe where the ginkgo came from and how it very nearly became extinct. He will then relate how the tree ultimately became one of the world’s most important street trees, and a source of artistic and spiritual inspiration.

Mr. Crane said that the subject of the ginkgo tree combined his paleontological background and interest in exploring the “nature of our relationship with trees and the living world.”

A British citizen, Mr. Crane is a distinguished botanical scholar of great accomplishment. He has served as Dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies since 2009. He has been the director of the Field Museum in Chicago, has been the director and chief executive of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in the United Kingdom, and has been a professor at the University of Chicago. Mr. Crane was knighted in 2004 for his service to horticulture and conservation.

Mr. Crane’s August 19 talk will mark his first visit to Martha’s Vineyard and to the Polly Hill Arboretum.

“Arboreta and botanical gardens play a key role in connecting people with plants,” said Mr. Crane, when asked about the role of an arboretum in society. He described the work of an arboretum as “conservation through cultivation,” and noted that public engagement is a critical role of the Polly Hill Arboretum and of any arboretum.

Asked whether the exotic plants present in an arboretum might pose a risk of becoming invasive, Mr. Crane responded that an arboretum would not grow a known invasive plant as part of its collection, and noted that most invasive plants have come about through the vast horticultural trade.

Mr. Crane reflected on changes that he has observed in people’s understanding of and appreciation of plants. He has observed a “gentle upsurge in interest in horticulture” over time. He also commented on the strong local support for conservation that is evident nationwide.

“Most people really care about their local quality of life,” said Mr. Crane. “People greatly value their natural habitats, and protect them and look after them.”

Mr. Crane will visit the Island just after welcoming the newest class of students to the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

“On August 9, our newest class of students will arrive. There will be about 150 of them,” Mr. Crane said. “Typically they are several years beyond their first degree.”

Incoming master’s degree students will pursue a course of studies that leads to a master’s degree in forestry, environmental management, forest science or environmental science. Coming from around the United States and the world, these students will arrive in New Haven for an intense three-week introductory field session affectionately referred to as “mods.”

“In a way, it is the most exciting time of the year,” Mr. Crane said.

Mods leads incoming students to a week at the Yale Camp at the Yale-Myers Forest in northeastern Connecticut, a week at the Yale Camp at Great Mountain Forest in Norfolk, Conn., and a week of plant identification in a range of natural habitats surrounding New Haven. The sessions offer time to bond with new classmates and form lasting memories.

The plant identification session may lead an incoming student to the ginkgo. For those on Martha’s Vineyard wishing to identify and inspect a ginkgo tree personally, there are several to be found.

Tim Boland, executive director of the Polly Hill Arboretum, said that there are two ginkgo trees at the Polly Hill Arboretum, both from China and from wild Chinese seed. There is another ginkgo tree found behind the West Tisbury library, next to a bench, and near the tiny model of Alley’s General Store, he said.

The leaves of the ginkgo make it immediately recognizable. The leaves are fan-shaped, and light-green in color in the summer. In the fall, the leaves turn a beautiful lemon yellow. The fall color of the ginkgo is lovely to behold, but once the leaves have turned color, one must enjoy the sight of the foliage quickly.

“The fall color lasts only a few days,” said Mr. Boland, who noted that once the leaves have turned color, they are then shed very quickly. Though the ginkgo has broad, deciduous leaves, and not needles, it is a gymnosperm, and not an angiosperm, and is therefore more closely related to pine trees than it is to oak trees. In fact, the website for the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew describes the ginkgo as being unique and so old that it is the only living bridge between ferns and conifers.

Mr. Boland said that the ginkgo at the West Tisbury library grounds is a horticultural variety known as Autumn Gold, and it is a male tree, and therefore bears no fruit. The female ginkgo tree does bear fruit, and due to the butyric acid contained in the flesh of these fruits, the ginkgo fruits can emit an overwhelming stench. Yet beneath the stinking flesh of the fruit lies a nut resembling a silver almond.

“It is quite a tradition of the Chinese and Korean people to roast the nuts and eat them,” said Mr. Boland, who has eaten and enjoyed the ginkgo nuts. Medicinal products are made from both the nuts and the leaves of this tree, he said.

Mr. Boland said that the ginkgo specimen at the Polly Hill Arboretum came from the Arnold Arboretum. He pointed out the ginkgo does not respond especially well to the acidic soils found in the Arboretum, but does grow well in the more residential parts of the island. The ginkgo also has an “amazing resilience to pests and insects.”

The public is invited to meet Peter Crane and learn about the ginkgo tree by attending the talk on August 19. The talk will begin at 7:30 pm. The cost is $5 for members of the Polly Hill Arboretum and $10 for non-members. For more information, contact the Arboretum at 508-693-9426 or at

Adam Moore is executive director of the Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation and a graduate of the Yale School of Forestry.