Maidenhair Tree Ginkgo biloba
The Maidenhair Tree, also known as the Ginkgo, is the only surviving member of a family, which has existed since the Jurassic era 180 million years ago. The tree is native to a small area of China where it has been cultivated for centuries for its apricot-like “fruit”. In the forests of China individual trees may live for more than 3000 years. It was introduced to Britain in 1758 and has been planted widely in southern England, in large gardens, parks and new towns. It is known as the Maidenhair Tree because its leaves resemble those of the Maidenhair fern. The tree can easily be recognised in summer by its unique leaves and in the winter by its large buds. The tree is deciduous – its leaves turn yellow and fall in autumn.
The Maidenhair Tree takes 20 years to mature and flower. Even then few trees flower in Britain. When it does flower, male trees have pollen cones that look like catkins and release pollen grains onto the wind. Female trees bear ovules that contain eggs that, in a complex process involving swimming sperm, develop into small, round, then yellow “fruits”. (Technically these are not fruits but are nut-like seeds with a fleshy outer coating). When the “fruit” falls to the floor it produces a rancid smell as it rots which has evolved to attract scavengers. For this reason most trees planted on city streets in Britain are male. The nut-like seed is used in Chinese cooking. Leaf extracts are used in Chinese medicine.
Botanically the Maidenhair Tree is classed as a Gymnosperm because it has “naked seeds” like a Conifer. But it has reproductive features that are more like the “primitive” plants such as Mosses, Liverworts and Ferns and leaves that resemble Broad-leaved trees. It is a survivor from an evolutionary branch that was superseded by Conifers and Broad-leaved trees. Because of this it is sometimes called a living fossil.