The recent book, Ginkgo, by Peter Crane is an exceptionally well written tale about a tree. Not just any tree, but one of the longest surviving species around. This tale covers the history of its discovery, the people involved, the biology of the tree, and it discusses the trees interaction with man from both the Eastern and Western perspective.
If you have never met a ginkgo, then you are in for a surprise. Just walk down any street in Manhattan and I would bet there are a half a dozen or more around. They are indestructible and live upon the urban exhaust from cars and trucks. They can survive quite well in most temperate environments, just add CO2, water and sunlight. Not too cold and not too hot and they take off.
I have been growing ginkgoes from seed for a couple of decades. Each tree is different and one grows three feet a year. After twenty years it is over sixty feet tall. It gets abundant water sitting on the edge of a daylily garden. Others are slow growers, just a few inches. Yet they all have the distinctive leaf, and in the fall the distinctive golden yellow leaf, and then they all drop on the same day. It is a wonderful orchestrated act of nature.
Crane goes through this tree and uses it to tell many tales. Tales of paleobotany and the paleobotanists. People who look for plants in the rocks from millions of years ago. Then he explores the biology of the ginkgo. It is a plant which has male and female versions, and both are often necessary for reproduction. The seed is coveted as an edible treat whereas the seed covering is quite distasteful.
Also Crane discusses the evolutionary placement amongst on the one hand ferns and on the other hand conifers. Ginkgoes are gymnosperms, naked seeds, unlike what we have in flowering plants. Yet in many ways Crane argues they have a linkage to ferns as well.
Crane takes the reader on a journey from discovery, through understanding and ultimately to uses. Ginkgo is used for decorative purposes, it is used as a medication, and its wood has value in such areas as fine wood art.
Crane leaves the reader off with a broad discussion of the survival of species. Ginkgo is an example of a species which had dwindled down but as a result of man’s attraction to the plant has thrived. They have gone everywhere. A sort of Intelligent Survival to play on words. Crane speaks of the good and the less good in the area of survival, with his discussion of treaties which meaning well have deteriorated to protection of national interests that often do not benefit the species.
The book is exceptionally well written and is accessible to the general reader. For those who may know a bit more this is not a significant step forward. It is obviously a book for the general public and as such serves that purpose masterfully. Having a bit more knowledge I kept asking for more, but alas that was not the purpose of the work.
For example, color photographs would have been helpful, albeit costly. Also a better discussion of the reproductive cycle of the ginkgo would be helpful with some useful graphics. It is so unique that it is truly worth the effort. Yet the uniqueness presupposes that the reader understand basic embryology, alas not met by many a reader. Finally the genetic analysis would have been enlightening. The placement of the Ginkgo is some form of evolutionary tree based upon DNA analysis would have been exceptionally well received. That I believe is not asking too much since most High School students have some knowledge there.
Overall I strongly recommend this book to anyone interested in plants, their evolution, association with mankind and their preservation. Ginkgoes may very well help mankind through dramatic climate changes since they managed many over their 200 million year lifetime.