Born survivor: The ancient Chinese tree that survived the dinosaurs and the Ice Age

The gingko became a ubiquitous presence in modern life – whether in sculpture form or as a smart drug.

The Chinese are taking over. It's a fact. But today I'm not thinking of container ships from superstructured giant ports with oversized cargos of desirable goods. Actually, I'm standing in the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, looking at a tree.

This rather unshowy ginkgo, tucked in behind Sir William Chambers' grand Orangery, is one of just five trees left from Kew's first ever planting, dating back to 1762. A vivid lime-green in spring with new leaves, and a bright, friendly yellow in autumn, the ginkgo has calmly seen Kew's seasons change for the past 250 years. But despite its modest appearance, this single tree lays good claim to being one of the most significant in Britain – it made it on to the Tree Council's 2002 list of the 50 Great British Trees, one of the few foreigners to stand alongside Newton's apple, Charles II's oak and Brighton Pavilion's elm.

Yet 250 years is a mere trifle in the eye of the ginkgo. This is a species that saw the dinosaurs come and go. Having been a global success for millions of years, the ginkgo shrank during the Ice Age to a tiny population confined to a mountainous bit of southern China. So the tale's final twist is a good one: the ginkgo's bouncing back in our own era, leaving its Chinese retreat and becoming one of the world's most planted street trees.

And I now know all of this because Peter Crane, the former head of Kew, has just written a book that details the swings and roundabouts of the ginkgo's career – one with more successful comebacks than the Thin White Duke himself. "The ginkgo is a good-news story," as Crane puts it, "a tree that people saved."

Crane packs in an amazing number of facts for curious tree-huggers such as myself. It turns out that much of the early ginkgo story can be traced right here to the UK. Forget the big bone badlands of T Rex country – Crane takes in essential British stops for plant fossil-hunters such as the Rhynie chert in Scotland, the Yorkshire Jurassic and the London Clay fossils of the Isle of Sheppey. And in every place, he's looking for the ginkgo's fine, distinctive leaf, with its elegant fan shape and tiny radiating veins.

The tale is one of dominance and then retreat. But it's also a story of resurgence, as 19th-century plant collectors alighted on this elegant tree and quickly acted to bring back seeds for Western gardeners. And gardeners certainly took to the ginkgo. The tree has no close living relatives any more – it's a lonely soul in that respect – but these days there are ginkgos in the world's greatest cities, from Seoul to Manhattan. (It turns out that evolving in the sulphurous climate of dinosaur times gives a tree a distinct survival advantage when faced with nonstop traffic pollution.)

Yet the world's most revered ginkgos remain temple trees in Japan, China and Korea, where they are honoured for their elegant leaves and long life. And the tree has left its imprint everywhere: Crane includes the lovely detail that sumo wrestlers' hair is tied in a top knot that takes the name "ginkgo".

We also shouldn't forget that many these days know it best as a drug for battling what is politely termed "cerebral insufficiency". (Especially in Germany and France, where ginkgo-based drugs account for an astonishing 1.5 per cent of those countries' total prescription sales.) From Frank Lloyd Wright to Gilbert and George, Tsurugaoka to the Tower of London, Hiroshima to 9/11 memorials, there have been ginkgos.

And so here I am, beneath this historic tree, pondering. Crane expresses great affection for this particular example of a ginkgo – it was just outside his back gate when he was Kew's director, resident in the fine Georgian house provided for the incumbent.

These days, he's Professor of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale, and a remarkably poetic campaigner on biodiversity issues, happily quoting Charles Darwin and Joni Mitchell as the occasion demands. Crane shows us the world in very long view, with climate shifts and ice movements well before human beings existed, but he also places moral responsibility for the world now firmly on our shoulders.

"Letting species go extinct when we have the power to intervene is like letting the library burn just as we are learning how to read the books," he says. And if you ever needed to feel inspired about saving the trees, here's your bible: dinosaurs, shipwrecks, plant collectors, supercargos and smart drugs, the ginkgo has it all.

'Ginkgo: The Tree that Time Forgot' by Peter Crane is published by Yale University Press, priced £25

Discover more property articles at Homes and Property
Homeless Veterans charity auction: Cook with Angela Hartnett and Neil Borthwick at Merchants Tavern
charity appeal
Amir Khan is engaged in a broader battle than attempting to win a fight with Floyd Mayweather
boxing Boxer Amir Khan will travel to Pakistan in bid to 'make a difference' in the wake of army school massacre
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly finalists Simon Webbe, Caroline Flack, Mark Wright and Frankie Bridge
tvLive: Simon Webbe, Caroline Flack, Mark Wright and Frankie Bridgeface-off in the final
Ched Evans in action for Sheffield United in 2012
footballRonnie Moore says 'he's served his time and the boy wants to play football'
Property search
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture