Friday, June 6, 2008

Ginkgo biloba: Maidenhair tree

"In 1492, Colombus discovered America." We all know that's true, but we are also aware that this statement would have sounded pretty odd to anyone who happened to be already living in America at the time. The story of the discovery of the ginkgo tends to get told in the same, somewhat confusing, way, so I'll attempt to redress the balance by telling it from the Japanese point of view.

"It's a sunny day in Nagasaki, and it's 1690. Do we know what ichou is? We certainly do! It's a common enough tree, with at least one growing within the grounds of most (Buddhist) temples and (Shinto) shrines hereabouts. It's a big tree, and it can live a long time, perhaps for thousands of years, they say. Do we know why it's called ichou, or where it came from? Not quite so easy, but surely must have come from China. (Most things do.) Probably with Buddhism, or something. We usually write the name with the Chinese characters for silver (gin as in ginkou, bank), and apricot (kyou or an, as in anzu jamu or apricot jam, if that's been invented yet). Hmm, that's a bit confusing, but we do call the nuts gin-nan.

"Anyway, apparently this Dutch geezer, Engelbert Something, has just turned up in the port. Must be Dutch, because they're the only hairy barbarians allowed in. Er, Something began with 'K', perhaps "Kenpu...", or was it "Ken Peru"? Well, one of the lads happened to be there when he (the Dutchman, that is) bumped into this ichou tree, and promptly got extremely excited about it. Was saying something that everyone knew it wasn't there. Seems odd, since we certainly knew."

Engelbert Kaempfer (rendered as kenperu in Japanese) was the first of the Three Great Plant-Watchers, and lived in Nagasaki from 1690 to 1692. He was German, and it may have been that no disguise was necessary, since he appeared in Nagasaki before the rigid "Dutch-only" rule came into force. Seeds of the ginkgo that he collected were sent back to the Netherlands, and this was one of the first oriental trees widely grown in the west as an ornamental shade tree. At some stage, it became known as a "living fossil", because it's the only member of the ancient botanical division ginkgophyta which still survives. Some accounts suggest that in Kaempfer's time fossil members of the ginkgo family were already known, though whether Kaempfer himself would have been familiar with this isn't clear.

And despite the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (SOED) describing it as a "Japanese tree", it seems that the ginkgo did originate from China. Since it has been cultivated for centuries, there is some dispute whether any original wild trees might still exist somewhere in the mountains of Eastern China. (There may also, incidentally, be some confusion between the discovery by Kaempfer that the ginkgo is not extinct, and the various reports of ginkgoes being found in the wild, none of which seem to have been confirmed.)