Ginkgo: An Evolutionary and Cultural Biography
21 October 2013, London
Beginning with the historic Ginkgo tree that has thrived in Kew Gardens since the 1760s, this lecture will explore the evolutionary and cultural history of the species from its mysterious origin through its proliferation, drastic decline, and ultimate resurgence. The lecture will also highlight the cultural and social significance of ginkgo, particularly in Japan: its medicinal and nutritional uses, its power as a source of artistic and religious inspiration, and its importance as one of the world’s most popular street trees.
Ginkgo is a botanical oddity that has remained stubbornly unchanged for more than two hundred million years. It is the most widely recognized of all botanical ‘living fossils.’ Once regarded as a cousin of pines and yews, ginkgo was first distinguished from conifers in plant classifications of the early nineteenth century. The evidence that has come to light since – particularly an astonishing discovery made in Japan in 1896, about the intimate details of its reproduction – has reinforced the isolated position of ginkgo among living plants.
Ginkgo barely survived the great Ice Ages and today the only remaining wild populations exist as relics in China. Nevertheless, Ginkgo earned a reprieve when people first found it useful about a thousand years ago and it has been widely cultivated ever since. It was probably introduced into Japan from China in the thirteenth century. Today Ginkgo is beloved for the elegance of its leaves, prized for its edible nuts and revered for its longevity.
Professor Sir Peter Crane FRS is Carl W. Knobloch Jr. Dean of the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University. His work focuses on the diversity of plant life – its origin, fossil history, current status, conservation and use. From 1982 to 1999 he was at the Field Museum in Chicago, and from 1999 to 2006 he was Director of The Royal Botanic Gardens. He returned to Chicago in 2006 as the John and Marion Sullivan University Professor at The University of Chicago, before being appointed at Yale in 2009. Peter Crane was elected to the Royal Society in 1998 and was knighted for services to horticulture and conservation in 2004. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a Foreign Associate of the US National Academy of Sciences, a Foreign Member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, and a Member of the German Academy Leopoldina. He serves on the boards of several non-profit organizations and is the recipient of several honorary degrees, including an honorary doctorate of science from Cambridge University.
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