On autumn-evening walks down city sidewalks, look down and soon enough you’ll see the fan-shaped leaves of the ginkgo tree. They’re always laid flat out on the ground like they were placed there for you to notice. If you hold one in your palm, you’ll feel how soft and smooth it is. You’ll see all its fibers reaching up and out from the stem towards the edges of the leaf like the rays of a green sunrise. It feels delicate. The truth is, the ginkgo tree is far from frail. Its history is a tale of steadfast survival.
The ginkgo gets its name from “Ginkgoaceae,” a plant family from back in the Mesozoic Era. The Mesozoic Era ended with what’s called the Permian-Triassic mass extinction, but the on-the-nose name for this event is “The Great Dying.” They don’t know exactly what caused the devastation. Some think volcanic eruption, others say a mammoth asteroid. What they do know is that the oxygen levels all over the Earth—in the soil, the oceans, the air—were horribly low, and the oceans were exceptionally acidic. That was the recipe that wiped out three-quarters of the plants and animals on Earth. Every other species in the Ginkgoaceae family was squashed. Only the ginkgo tree we know now hung on through the sick soil and the acid-oceans to be called a living fossil today.
We weren’t around to witness the grit of the ginkgo tree then, but in the 20th century we tested it ourselves. In Hiroshima, Japan, six ginkgo trees within a mile of the 1945 atom bomb explosion survived. In an instant, the bomb turned a bright and living city into a charred, colorless landscape, peppered in the following weeks by black rain, kicked-up ash, and poisonous air. Nearly every living thing at that proximity was killed at the time of the blast, and many of the people who survived the impact were later killed by radiation.
The ginkgoes survived the blast. They survived the pummel of poison that followed. Like everything else, they’d been burnt and broken. No one suspected they were anything but dead. Then, like a tiny breath, green leaves sprung from the scorched branches.
Those six trees are still alive today. The trees’ survival was cherished as a miracle, and the trees were consciously protected during rebuilding efforts. One of the ginkgoes was growing next to a temple that was destroyed by the blast. Instead of cutting the tree down when the temple was rebuilt, a double staircase was designed to encircle the ginkgo at the temple’s entrance, honoring it as an example of the persistence of life. A hole was made in the floor of a new factory for one ginkgo; a hole was cut in the roof of a temple to allow another of the surviving ginkgoes to grow as it wanted without impediment. These trees brought hope in a time of devastation, and in return the Japanese have treasured them ever since. Each of the surviving trees is now marked with a plaque.
With any luck, those six ginkgoes will be around for a long time—it is not uncommon for ginkgoes to live to be over 1,000 years old. It is the ginkgoes’ extreme hardiness that makes them so good at surviving the city. They can handle terrible air and soil conditions. That’s why you always see them planted in those little 2×2 dirt patches along the sidewalk.
Have you ever gone to the zoo and looked in wonder at a gnarled, dusty reptile and thought to yourself how ancient it looks? They look to us like dinosaurs, like aliens from another time. Look on the ginkgo tree with those eyes, too. Any day now those fan-shaped leaves will turn butter-yellow and pave the sidewalks gold as the yellow brick road. As those leaves fall and flutter down like yellow swallowtails, remember that the pretty ginkgo is no fragile beauty, but a revered ancient survivor.