Patrick E. McLean : Just what it says on the tin.

The Toughest Trees Ever

I’ve become fascinated by trees. I’ve always liked them. But David Allen Sibley’s “Guide to Trees” has really sparked my interest. If you see me out and about, and I’m staring at a tree, it’s not because I’ve gone any farther off the deep end. It’s my new curiosity.

So the other day, on my way to a meeting, I’m stopped dead in my tracks by a tree that has very distinctive leaves. They have to be distinctive for me to remember them. I’ve just  figured out how to tell the difference between an Oak and a Maple. So there I am,
late to a meeting, staring at this tree.

When I get home, I look it up. Turns out it’s a Ginkgo tree. They’re often used in cities because they are very ‘hardy’. And hardy is a horticultural term which mean ‘hard to kill.” But when it comes to the Ginkgo, it should mean, ‘damn nigh impossible to kill.’ Don’t take my word for it. Here’s a tree that was half a mile away from the atomic blast at Hiroshima.

Hosen-ji in all it’s unkillable glory.

This Ginkgo tree is called Hosen-Ji, because anything that lives through an atomic explosion gets a nickname in Japan. Hosen-Ji survived, but the temple it was planted next to didn’t make it. When the temple was rebuilt, it was suggested that the tree might be transplanted to make construction easier. This suggestion was quickly shot down. Instead of moving the tree, they designed the temple around it. This might be because they were Buddhists and revered life. Then again, it might be because anything that is tough enough to survive a nuclear explosion is something you don’t want to mess with. It’s been exposed to Gamma Rays. Who knows what happens when it gets angry?

But the weirdness of the Ginkgo tree does not end there. It’s a profoundly odd plant. So odd, in fact that it’s in it’s very own Division in the Plant Kingdom. And the Ginkgo Biloba is the only member of it’s of Division. So where the Willow Oak in my back yard is classified like this:

Division: Magnoliophyta (pop. = 230,000)
Order: Fagales
Genus: Quercus
Family: Fagaceae
Section: Lobatae
Species: Phellos

The Ginkgo has this odd classification:

Kingdom:    Plantae
Division:   Ginkgophyta (pop. = 1)
Class:  Ginkgoopsida
Order:  Ginkgoales
Family:     Ginkgoaceae
Genus:  Ginkgo
Species:    G. biloba

It’s as if the world Ginkgo meant “I dunno”, in Latin. Because botanists don’t have much of an idea of how this tree is related to other trees. They call the tree a living fossil, because it’s the only one left of it’s kind. Or rather, the only kind left of it’s kinds. It would be like jumping forward in time 270 million years and finding that all the cultures and nations we know now had been wiped out. Except for the Finn’s. And they’re weird to begin with. Oh sure, you’d find some records of the Swedes and the Danes and the Norse. But, for some reason, only the people from Finland would have survived.

And let’s consider what it means for these trees to be 270 million years old. Dinosaurs only appeared 230 million years ago. Which means, by the time the Dinosaurs did show up, the Gingko tree had 40 million years under it’s belt already. Not only are these the kind of trees that can survive an atomic blast, they are tough enough to look at a T-Rex and say, “You think you’re hot shit? We’ll see.”

160 million years later, a meteor slammed into the Earth. And the dinosaurs, and most everything else on the planet, died. But not the Gingko. Oh no. The Gingko tree lived on. In my head, the wise old Gingko Tree turns to the T-Rex and says, “Told you so.” And as the T-Rex looks up into the Gingko tree with wide, fearful eyes, seeking some kind of solace from a fellow land creature in the face of certain oblivion, the tree adds, “Yeah, and your great, great, great, great, great, great, Grandaddy was a punk, too.”

These trees aren’t nice. These trees are survivors

By scientist’s estimates, an impact big enough to create the layer of black ash found in the K-T barrier in the fossil record (and wipe out the dinosaurs) would have to have the energy of 100 trillion tons of TNT — that’s two million times greater than the most powerful nuclear bomb ever tested. That means that the Gingko tree that got bombed at Hiroshima would have been legitimately entitled to say, “Is that all you got?” Oh, if these trees could talk, the smack they would talk.

Surely, the Gingko Biloba are the toughest trees ever. Maybe they had saber-toothed ancestors that were tougher? I’m not putting anything past a tree that can survive a meteor strike.  But those ancestors weren’t survivors. So, I feel that we must convey the Eye of the Tiger, tree-division, to the Gingko Biloba.

Not everyone feels this way. Wikipedia reports that the Ginkgo listed as an endangered species. Not critically endangered, just middle-of-the-road endangered. It may be true, but I find it hard to comprehend. When there’s ten or twenty of them planted as ornamental trees around an office park in Charlotte, NC, I figure they have to be doing okay.  That, and the next time I walk past one, I know I’m going to hear it say, “You think you’re hot shit? We’ll see. You punks haven’t even made it to your first million years yet.”

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