Trees

Ginkgos Live Long Because They Don’t Know When to Die

One of the oldest ginkgos in Japan, with a 10-meter girth, but at only 700 years old, it’s half the age of some specimens in China. Photo: nippon.com

Why do ginkgos (Ginkgo biloba) live so long? And indeed, some live to be 1,400 years old, possibly even 3,000 years old.

It turns out it’s because they don’t when to die!

1,000-year-old ginkgo in Sendai, Japan. Photo: ginkgopages.blogspot.com

Unlike most other plants and, indeed, animals, the ginkgo has no genes for senescence. Other plants have genes for a sort of planned obsolescence (most other tree species are in serious decline after 150 years)… as do birds and mammals, including human beings. Most plants and animals are simply designed to eventually fail. This is called senescence. But scientists could find no difference between the cells of young ginkgo trees and ancient ones, 600 years old. The tree’s ability to photosynthesize, grow leaves, resist disease and even reproduce remain intact, centuries after it germinates. 

With its unique fan-shaped leaves, the ginkgo can be mistaken for no other tree. Photo: http://www.alzdiscovery.org

“Essentially, in relation to the immunity of the plant against stress or disease, it was hard to tell a 600-year-old tree from a 20-year-old tree,” reported Dr. Richard Dixon of the University of North Texas, part of the team that looked into the ginkgo’s amazing longevity. 

And this longevity has served the ginkgo well. The species has been on this planet for over 200 million years, having co-existed with dinosaurs and, indeed, outlived them. Charles Darwin himself called ginkgos living fossils.

This 1,000-year-old ginkgo at the Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū shrine in Kamakura, Japan, was uprooted by a snowstorm March 10, 2010. Photo: Urashimataro, Wikimedia Commons

Not that individual ginkgos do live forever. Something eventually gets them: fire, lightning, wind, erosion, development… or being cut for logging. When a tree lives 1,000 years plus, its environment is likely to change and no longer suit it. But then it dies from external factors. If it were up to its cells alone, it would apparently live forever!

It’s likely other long-lived trees, like the bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva, some specimens of which are nearly 5,000 years old), likewise lack programmed senescence, but more studies are needed to look into that.

Larry Hodgson is one of Canada’s best-known garden communicators. He has notably been editor-in-chief of HousePlant Magazine, Fleurs, Plantes et Jardins, À Fleur de Pot and Houseplant Forum magazines and is currently the garden correspondent for Le Soleil and radio garden commentator for CKIA-FM Radio. He has written for many garden publications in both the United States and Canada, including Canadian Gardening, Harrowsmith, Horticulture, Fine Gardening and Organic Gardening. He also speaks frequently to horticultural groups throughout Canada and the U.S. His book credits include The Garden Lover’s Guide to Canada, Complete Guide to Houseplants, Making the Most of Shade, Perennials for Every Purpose, Annuals for Every Purpose, and Houseplants for Dummies, as well as nearly 60 other titles in English and French. He is a past president of the Garden Writers Association (now Garden Communicators International) and the winner of the prestigious 2006 Garden Media Promoter Award offered by the Perennial Plant Association. He resides in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada.

3 comments on “Ginkgos Live Long Because They Don’t Know When to Die

  1. Margaret

    Fascinating, no wonder ginkos are a recommended street tree in NYC. Ya gotta be tough!

  2. Bristlecone pines seem to die bark part way, as they shed big limbs or main trunks, but they never seem to completely replace themselves. Nor do the giant redwoods. However, some of the coastal redwood here not only live for thousands of years, but they produce new trunks from their roots to continue one for thousands of years more. It is impossible to know how long ago some of them actually germinated from seeds. I suspect that aspens and banyans behave similarly.

  3. Pingback: My future bonsai: Step four – Semiosis

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