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How to really look at a tree

Written By: Valerie Payn.

When was the last time you looked at a tree? I mean, really looked. Contemplated the colour and texture of its bark. Observed how branches connect to the trunk, and smaller branches well, branch off from larger ones; how leaves arrange themselves in regular patterns on the twigs, and how the leaves themselves are patterned. Like the Gingko leaves below with their unusual fan shaped leaf veins, nestling ovules that extrude sticky nectar to catch passing pollen grains.

Have you ever meditated on the reach of tree roots, reaching deep into the ground bringing moisture and deep buried soil nutrients up the leaves, releasing them to the surface where they respectively humidify the atmosphere and fertilize the soil? Our lives are intertwined with trees in so many ways. Every time we take a breath, we breathe in life-giving oxygen, a by-product of trees.  And so many of our fruits, nuts, essential oils, herbal medicines and other useful products come from trees. Is it surprising that trees are so often part of folklore, with all sorts of meanings, myths and stories attached to them?

Trees help define a landscape’s unique character. Earth’s tropical forests, for instance, have a very different look to cold climate boreal, coniferous forests, or to Africa’s tree studded savannas. As dominant plants in a landscape, trees often create favourable conditions for other plants to grow, providing shelter from heat, cold or wind for more tender species, and food and habitat for wildlife. Planting a tree, or trees, in a garden transforms the garden. And spending time among trees, in forests, is soothing and healing (see )

A man who really looks at trees

Jimmy Shen is a man who has spent a lifetime really looking at trees. In particular, Ginkgo trees of the ancient wild forests at the foot of the Tianmu Mountains in China. These gingko forests have existed for hundreds of millions of years. Jimmy’s stunning photographic documentation of these amazing forests, and the villages among them, reflect his artistic apprenticeship to the late master Chinese painter Shoutian Pan, and have earned him international acclaim. I am thrilled that Jimmy has given me permission to use some of his stunning photographs from his book GINKGO, MELODY OF NATURE 《银杏 大地之歌》(order at ) to illustrate this blog.

In GINKGO, MELODY OF NATURE  Jimmy  includes many delightful anecdotes and stories about the history of Ginkgo and the close connections these trees have to Chinese folklore and medicine, as well as the very ancient roots of Ginkgo, a tree that is a living fossil.

Ginkgo fossils, unearthed in 1989 at Yi Ma Formation of Henan province, China, by a team of paleontologists led by Ziyan Zhou and Bole Zhang have been traced back 170 million years–the oldest ginkgo fossils found to date. Other fossil discoveries in Europe and North America show that ginkgo biloba once flourished in many parts of Earth in ancient times. But a mass extinction 65 million years ago, and the last ice age that swept across the planet 2 million years ago, wiped most of these out. Only one species of ginkgo tree survived, in pockets in the sheltered mountainous areas of China where Jimmy Shen grew up and has spent his life.

The Never-parted Couple Ginkgos

(With author’s permission, this story is excerpted from book GINKGO, MELODY OF NATURE 《银杏 大地之歌》, order at )

The most outstanding couple ginkgos are situated at WangCha Village, Duanxin Commune, Wuyuan County, Jiangxi Province, China. They are about 66 ft (20 m) tall; with diameter at breast height of 3.3 ft (1 m). Standing on either bank of a stream, they grew up high toward each other, their heads united. One holds some part of the other. One root of the male, its diameter over 1.6 ft (0.6 m), 13 ft (4 m) long grows across the stream into the female’s base. Folk villager Erjiu Wang told me that people used to cross the stream by way of this root, before it was damaged by flowing currents during a flood in 1969. Local newly-weds usually come to kneel before the trees, in hope of a lasting love as long as that of the couple ginkgos.

Order GINKGO, MELODY OF NATURE 《银杏 大地之歌》or download a ginkgo calendar with photographs by Jimmy Shen from

Valerie Payn is the author ofAn Ecological Gardeners Handbook– see

Read more of Valerie Payn’s blogs on ecological gardening at

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