23 October 2013
It’s that time of the year in the northern hemisphere when the trees begin to lose their leaves. If we’re lucky, depending on where we’re perched on that hemisphere, we can witness the glorious spectacle of leaves turning intensely red, orange or yellow before they expire and finally float to the ground. My wife and I had such luck some thirty years ago, when we went “leaf peeping” in Vermont.
We had such luck an equally long time ago in Hokkaido, the northern island of Japan
And I had such luck, alone this time, on my recent trip to Qinghai province, where the poplars were turning bright, golden yellow.
Alas, we have no such luck in dirty, dusty, smoggy Beijing. The leaves here go a little bit yellow, or just plain brown, before dropping miserably to the ground.
The partial exception is the ginkgo. Ginkgos are popular trees to plant along streets. They tolerate well pollution and confined soil space, admirable traits for a tree growing in Beijing. And they look handsome, in the summer
but even more so in the autumn
Strange trees, ginkgos. The name already is odd. It was years before I realised that the “k” actually comes before the “g”. Who on earth came up with that spelling? A Dutchman called Engelbert Kaempfer, that’s who, back in the late 17th Century. He was the first European to see a gingko – sorry, ginkgo – in Japan. When he reported it to the European world, he seems to have stumbled over his transcription of the Japanese name ginkyō: what should have been written “ginkio” or “ginkjo” somehow got written as ginkgo.
That double-lobed leaf is odd, too.
In fact, it’s unique among seed plants. Unique, because the ginkgo is a living fossil. This fossilized ginkgo leaf
is 40 million year old, although the ginkgo is far older. It first appears in the fossil record some 200 million years ago. It did nicely for the first 100 million years or so but then it went into terminal decline. Its range shrank and shrank, the various ginkgo species disappeared, until only ginkgo biloba survived, and survived only in China.
In fact, even the ginkgo biloba probably wouldn’t have survived if it hadn’t been for Buddhism coming to China. There’s a lot of debate about whether or not the ginkgo trees currently found in the wild in China are truly wild or simply feral, that is, grown from seeds that wafted away from domesticated trees. What is sure is that Buddhist monks took to planting ginkgos in their temples as their local version of the bo-tree, the sacred fig tree under which it is said that the Buddha attained enlightenment.
and of course the ginkgo then got included in the Chinese Buddhist iconography – look at those gingko leaves peeping behind the buddha:
The ginkgo, having thus gained enormously in stature as a sacred tree, was carefully nurtured by all and sundry and survived – and got carried by Buddhism to Korea and Japan, where our friend Engelbert saw it.
So I suppose it’s really best to admire the ginkgo in the environment which saved it from probable extinction, a Buddhist temple like this one, Dajue temple in the western hills near Beijing.
Hokkaido fall foliage: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-HK-XCKr055I/UGvr1pwda3I/AAAAAAAAGc8/oe2ckytpNRk/s1600/%E7%A7%8B%E3%81%AE%E9%AB%98%E5%8E%9F%E6%B8%A9%E6%B3%892.jpg [in http://talk-hokkaido.blogspot.com/2012/10/autumnal-foliage-around-daisetsu.html%5D
Qinghai fall foliage: my picture
Ginkgo trees along the street: my picture
Ginkgo leaves summer: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/f/f5/Ginkgo_Biloba_Leaves_-_Black_Background.jpg/400px-Ginkgo_Biloba_Leaves_-_Black_Background.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ginkgo_biloba%5D
Maitreya Buddha sitting under ginkgo: http://www.asia.si.edu/collections/zoom/F1911.411.jpg