The Age of Humans The Age of Humans

The World Told Through the Eyes of the Ginkgo Tree

By deciding this ancient plant was worthy of their attention, humans ended up dramatically shaping its evolution

The ginkgo biloba or Maidenhair tree has been around for at least 270 million years, making it the botanical equivalent of the shark. (flowerphotos / Alamy )
smithsonian.com

Now known as a common street tree, ginkgo biloba lays claim to a history that vastly predates humans. The tree's rounded fronds are found in fossils going back 270 million years, with the ancient version of the plant looking much the same as today's. But since humans hit the scene, the fate of this distinctive tree has been inextricably bound with the history of us. 

Not only has the mighty ginkgo made appearances in poetry, art and literature for millennia. But our desire for its seeds and beauty has dramatically shaped this tree's evolution. At varying times in history, ginkgo has been grown as a food plant, cultivated for its pleasing shape and used in alternative medicine. 

For other living things that humans have deemed useful—fur-bearing seals, elephants with ivory tusks—this kind of attention can be fatal. For ginkgo, it has been the opposite. 

This week’s episode of Generation Anthropocene charts the rise and fall of this remarkable plant, and the starring role humans have played in its journey. You might think of ginkgo as humanity's first (inadvertent) conservation project: By deciding it was worthy of consumption, we ended up spreading this tree around the world and even saving it from the edge of extinction. Today, the ginkgo stands as an icon of the Anthropocene. 

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