Journeys of Dr. G at Tyler Arboretum

The sabbatical project continues, exploring all that Tyler Arboretum has to offer

Tyler’s living fossil, the Ginkgo biloba

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Although you won’t find any fossils contained in the rocks at Tyler Arboretum, you will find an example of what scientists refer to as a living fossil.  What’s a living fossil, you might ask?  A term coined by Charles Darwin, a living fossil is an organism that has essentially remained unchanged in its structure through a period geologic time, typically without any close living relatives.  Examples of living fossils include the horseshoe crab, snapping turtle, pelican, and Asian elephant.

IMG_7529Right below the retaining wall of Lachford Hall at Tyler Arboretum is where you will find a living fossil that also happens to be one of the designated Painter Plants – the Ginkgo biloba.  From Tyler’s website:

The ginkgo is the world’s oldest living species of tree whose fossil records date back 150 million years when dinosaurs roamed the earth. This multi-trunked specimen has a massive trunk, measuring just over 21 feet in circumference. The fan-shaped leaves turn bright yellow in the fall and often seemingly drop overnight when temperatures dip below freezing. Female trees produce seeds with a foul-smelling fleshy seed coat; luckily the Painter brothers planted a male.

Did you know… The specific species Ginkgo biloba is most commonly characterized by the appearance of its leaves. It wasn’t until 1771 that the species was defined as “biloba” by Carl Linnaeus; bi– meaning two, and loba– meaning lobes. The Ginkgo tree is sometimes termed Ginkgo biloba L. or Ginkgo biloba Linnaeus, in reference to the scientist who defined the leaves.  This is the only species of Ginkgo alive today and found on all continents except Antarctica, but many other species were around over 200 million years ago, back when the dinosaurs roamed the planet.  But the fossil record provides more evidence that the earliest ancestors of the Ginkgo most likely date back to before the dinosaurs, over 270 million years ago.  (from UW-LaCrosse)

Other fascinating Ginkgo facts include:

  • The word “Ginkgo” is actually a mistake made by Engelbert Kaempfer (the man who originally described Ginkgo). He wrote down how the Japanese phonetically addressed this tree (as “Ginkyô”) and incorrectly wrote it as “Ginkgo.”
  • The first Ginkgo tree planted in the USA was in Philadelphia, specifically in Woodlawn Cemetery.
  • Legend has it that one Ginkgo tree in China is over 3,500 years old.

For additional information on the Ginkgo biloba, check out these additional websites:

Photo of fallen leaves from the Gingko on the Lachford Hall patio, taken November 2013.

Author: Dr. G

Dr. Laura Guertin, Professor of Earth Science, Penn State Brandywine. Learn more at

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