Crow’s Nest: Roadside photo shoot

November 6, 2019

By Daniel Barringer, Preserve Manager.

On this blog we don’t talk much about trees that are not native to our region (unless they are also invasive and cause for management concern). We don’t plant them on our preserves since they are less likely to support the insects that native species co-evolved with, those which make up the fabric of our food web and support wildlife. We encourage homeowners to plant natives because not doing so means losing the opportunity to make these landscapes most useful to wildlife. (If the label at the garden center says “resistant to insect damage” then it’s not contributing to feed the birds and other wildlife that depend on plants converting the sun’s energy to insect biomass that can then be consumed.)

But all trees can be beautiful, and it was this ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) that made me pull over to take a photo while driving past it yesterday. Located at what was once Warwick High School, later French Creek Elementary, and today an administration building for Owen J. Roberts School District, this tree has a classic schoolyard look with its leaves on the ground. (I’m pretty sure these were outside the lunchroom at Lynnewood Elementary, a sprawling school with plenty of access to and views of the outdoors, which gives you an idea of where my mind was at the time.)

The ginkgo, or maidenhair tree, was introduced from Japan, where it had been a cultivated species; it is probably native originally to China and Korea but where naturally-occurring wild populations have not been confirmed. According to Stephen A. Spongberg in A Reunion of Trees (Harvard University Press, 1990), the ginkgo was introduced to Pennsylvania via England when trade resumed after the War of Independence and first planted in William Hamilton’s estate in Philadelphia, The Woodlands, today a cemetery and open to the public.

(The Woodlands is also the inspiration for the setting of Elizabeth Gilbert’s novel, The Signature of All Things. Spongberg also notes in the section following ginkgo that William Hamilton was also the first to plant seeds of Ailanthus altissima, tree of heaven, today a highly-invasive tree that we definitely have written about, most recently here.)

The ginkgo is considered a living fossil since it is a member of a group of plants of which it is the only surviving member; the others are known only from the fossil record. Charles Darwin himself coined the term “living fossil” (Spongberg 86). Ginkgo is related to plant groups such as cycads and ferns and is more closely related to gymnosperms such as conifers than to more recently-evolved angiosperms (flowering plants).