The ginkgo, native to China, figures prominently in Asian art as well as the Art Nouveau movement of the late nineteenth century, two fields of interest for the Smithsonian’s Sackler and Freer galleries. Ancient Chinese artists often depicted the Buddha’s Dragon Tree as a ginkgo. Chinese monks brought the ginkgo to Japan, where it was widely planted in temple gardens. In Japanese decorative art, the ginkgo’s distinctive fan-shaped leaf has carried symbolism along with its singular beauty: the ginkgo has been a symbol of longevity (the tree can live for a thousand years) and of a more profound endurance (four ginkgos survived the blast at Hiroshima and are still growing today).
The ginkgo tree has no known living relatives and has endured for millions of years with little change, that is why it is considered a living fossil. In fact, ginkgo is the oldest surviving species of tree known to exist, with a botanical history spanning more than 200 million years. This demonstration of resilience, combined with its antiquity, has granted the tree many symbolic meanings throughout the world. It has become a symbol of strength, hope and peace for many.