Glowing in Wellington Botanic Garden on a dark and grey early winter's day, a "living fossil." Ginkgo biloba, or the ginkgo tree, is the one living representative of the genus Ginkgo, unusual nonflowering plants which were first seen in the Permian era 270 million years ago - predating the dinosaurs.
It is only found in the wild in China, but the ginkgo is grown around the world because of its beauty, disease and insect resistance, and resilience. These qualities also mean that it is very long-lived, with claims that one tree was 2,500 years old. There are ginkgo trees planted and thriving on Lambton Quay, a main street in central Wellington, in vivid contrast to the buildings and traffic.
It is a dioecious plant, with separate sexes. Only male trees have been planted in the city - a very sensible choice because there is a problem with the fruit borne by the female trees. The seeds are enclosed in a light yellow brown fleshy outer layer - quite pretty and not an issue, until they fall and are walked on or otherwise disrupted, releasing the smell of butyric acid - the pong of rancid butter (or worse!). The flesh also contains allergenic compounds which can cause dermatitis when handled, but this does not deter people from harvesting the seeds. They are eaten as a delicacy - but not too many, as they contain a compound which is toxic (I have read that it interferes with vitamin B6 absorption - not so good.) Talk about having to work for your treat! Ginkgo is also used medicinally. I prefer to feast on it with my eyes.
The distinctive and rather tough leaves cope well with Wellington's winds - bright green in spring they retain their freshness through summer until they turn gold in late autumn/early winter. Their fan shape and the radiating veins are reminiscent of the pinnae of the maidenhair fern, and the ginkgo is sometimes called the maidenhair tree although that evokes a rather more delicate quality than is the reality.
The remaining leaves on this tree made a profuse display of gold, even though there was already a thick carpet of fallen leaves. A gorgeous blast from the very very distant past.