British Columbia

'A living fossil': one of the oldest trees on earth might be stinking up your backyard

What grows up big and tall, loses its clothes in the fall — and is millions of years older than the dinosaurs?

It might be the oldest bark on the block — but it's still got bite

This ginkgo biloba tree has been alive for over 100 years; the species itself predates the dinosaurs at an estimated 270 million years old. (The Associated Press)

Have you ever taken a stroll down a tree-lined street in the fall in Vancouver only to stop and wonder, "Wow, what is that smell?"

The odds are you walked past a gingko biloba tree — one of the most popular urban trees in Vancouver.

Each fall, female gingko trees produce edible nuts, and according to 'Tree Guy' David Tracey, they're rumoured to have certain medicinal properties.

But they smell bad. Like, really bad.

"When they rot on the ground ... some people say it smells like dog droppings, some people say it smells like vomit."

But Tracey says you shouldn't let the smell distract you. The trees are living legends.

Gingko biloba trees have grown for nearly 270 million years — they're one of the oldest living species of trees on Earth. They predate the dinosaurs, which started taking strides tens of millions of years later.

"All of the evolution — everything that's happened to the world, to plants, to humans — everything changed," Tracey said on CBC's North By Northwest.

"The gingko tree has managed to survive and continue just this way. Is that not a testament to greatness? What else can do that?"

According to Tracey, the gingko biloba tree is a living fossil, meaning it closely resembles species that existed millions of years ago that are only known through the fossil record.

Other living fossils include crocodiles, elephant sharks, and the horseshoe crab.

Sticking around in Chinatown

"If it can survive 270 million years — dinosaurs munching on it — maybe it can survive Chinatown," said Tracey. "It's been getting more popular because it's such a tough, urban tree."

In fact, they line the streets of Vancouver's Chinatown.

Gingko trees line the streets of Vancouver's Chinatown. (Google)

A symbol of hope

"It's an amazing tree. The fact that we have it today is also amazing," said Tracey. "It was thought, and still is thought by some botanists, to have gone extinct in the wild."

According to Tracey, wild gingko biloba trees may exist in pockets in eastern China. However, there is disagreement on whether or not they are cultivated.

"But we know it survived through cultivation, specifically in old temples in China — thousands of years ago."

"Survived" is not a term to be taken lightly for gingko trees.

"There are trees in Hiroshima, which is a testament to their resilience. When the whole city was flattened and devastated by the atomic bomb, six gingko trees remained alive."

"They got completely torched — they look like charred remains of tree. But they say when the leaves leafed out again, it was like a symbol of hope to the people in Hiroshima." 

With files from CBC's North by Northwest

To listen to the full interview, click on the audio labelled: What's classified as a living fossil and can survive a nuclear bomb? The gingko tree, of course