It is approaching the time of year when I make my annual pilgrimage to see one of the world’s most remarkable trees in full leaf – right here in Yorkshire. However, my target species is not found in an ancient woodland or a long-established arboretum, rather it is located in the centre of Leeds, where thousands of people pass it every day, unaware that a living fossil is growing in the city.
The tree in question is wonderful mature specimen of the maidenhair tree, which is more widely known by its scientific name – Ginkgo biloba. It can be found in a line of trees that have been planted along the northern edge of the Merrion Street Rest Garden, a green oasis adjacent to the bustling St. John’s Shopping Centre .
At this time of year the diagnostic leaves of the Ginkgo can be enjoyed to the maximum, with the tree now in full leaf. And even from some distance away it is apparent that the delicate fan-shaped leaves of the Ginkgo are like no other tree. The Ginkgo has been called a ‘living fossil’, with ancient rocks dating back over 200 million years found to contain the fossilized leaves of close relatives of the modern-day tree. It is incredible to think that trees looking much like the Ginkgo we can study today once formed part of an ancient ecosystem where long-extinct creatures roamed.
The Ginkgo, which is thought to be native to China, has a long history of use in traditional medicine, especially for heart and lung complaints. More recently, the consumption of Ginkgo has been linked with increased brain activity.
While in the Merrion Street Rest Garden be sure to keep an eye out for other wildlife, as the site acts as a feeding and refuge area for many other species. In addition to seasonal visitors such as blackcaps and waxwings, there are noisy colonies of nesting house sparrows in nearby buildings, with birds often visiting the garden to feed on scraps left by lunching shoppers and city workers. Last autumn, I was delighted to see a flock of over 50 house sparrows in and around the garden that contained a high proportion of young birds. This cheery little bird is clearly still doing well in Leeds and this somewhat bucks the national trend that has seen the bird become rare or completely absent from many urban areas.