Today’s Tropicalist is not exactly tropical, but since the ginkgo tree (Ginkgo biloba) is very much identified with Asia, I’d argue it shouldn’t be disqualified.
The ginkgo tree first makes an appearance in the literature in China, almost a thousand years ago. Around four hundred years later, the tree pops up again in Japan, likely as a result of trade with China. The present day name for the tree derives from the Japanese word for ginkgo, which itself is a confusion of the Chinese terms.1
The Chinese referred to ginkgo as the “silver apricot tree” or “duck’s foot.” “Gin” is Japanese for silver, but “go” comes from the word “cho,” which means “foot” in the dialect spoken by traders from China. It was in Japan that Europeans first encountered the tree, and thus it came to be known worldwide by its Japanese name.
Interestingly, the ginkgo’s botanical name refers to it as a bi-lobed leaf (biloba), despite its almost perfect fan shape. That’s because Carl Linnaeus, who named it, worked off a sample sent to him of a young ginkgo plant, the leaf of the which does indeed have two lobes. The poet Goethe, too, must have seen only a young ginkgo leaf when he wrote to his lover:
Is it one living being,
Which has separated in itself?
Or are these two, who chose
To be recognized as one?
In the interest of accuracy, the ginkgo wasn’t always an Asian tree. In the beginning, almost two hundred million years ago, the ginkgo and its many variants thrived in both the Northern and Southern hemispheres. Around a hundred million years ago, when flowering plants came onto the scene, the diversity of the species declined, and it lost its dominance. Nonetheless, it survived the end of the dinosaur era, making it through in Europe till about two to five million years ago, and in North America till about fifteen million years ago. Today, the ginkgo can be found across the continents once more thanks to the efforts of man, but in its native state, it is found only in China.
Perhaps its marvellous reproductive process can provide an explanation for the ginkgo’s hardiness.
Ginkgo trees, rather unusually, are either male or female. Darwin suggested that such a separation of the sexes made for the most efficient division of labour in the production of sex cells. But reproduction is complicated in such cases, especially when the male and female are essentially immobile. How to get them together to mate?
Once a year, the male tree produces trillions of pollen, which are then blown across the land to find a female tree. Miraculously, at exactly the same time, female ginkgo trees begin to “ovulate,” and at the tip of each ovule extrudes a pollination drop. This sticky pollination drop captures the pollen flying by, thus ensuring pollination takes place. Those trees that aren’t in synchronicity are out of luck: they leave no offspring to continue their line. Only the fittest survive.
Imagine that! A tree that measures time in eons, and yet the reproductive process is calibrated to the second.
Timing, as they say, is everything.