41. Ginkgo Biloba Trees

Ginkgo Biloba trees are my favourite trees in Witham. I only know of three of them. Their leaves are now a startling bright yellow. I hope some will still be on the trees when you read this. If not, you can still see the fallen ones, with their distinctive fan shape.

Witham’s Ginkgo trees are less than 150 years old, but fossils show that in the world as a whole, they are “the oldest living tree”, dating back over 250 million years, having survived the extinction of the dinosaurs. Our own trees are a “living fossil”, to quote Charles Darwin. For about the last three million years, the only ones surviving in the wild have been in China.

In 1762 some seeds were brought from China to Kew Gardens, and in due course Ginkgo Bilobas were planted in high class gardens all over Britain. One of these gardens was at Collingwood House in Witham (now Noel Pelly House, 15 Collingwood Road).

The Ginkgo tree at the top right of the Newlands car park
The Ginkgo tree at the top right of the Newlands car park
Edward Charles Smith, who planted the trees at Collingwood House
Edward Charles Smith, who planted the trees at Collingwood House

Most of the garden is now covered by the Newlands car park. But there is still a small Ginkgo tree next to the house, opposite the Telephone Exchange. And there’s a very tall one near the top right hand corner of the car park (shown in the photo).

The house was built in about 1882 by Edward Charles Smith. He owned the largest and oldest grocer’s and draper’s shop in Witham, which later became Spurge’s. There’s a stone with his name on it, on the back wall of the car park, formerly his garden wall.

It must have been Edward who planted the Ginkgo Bilobas there. When he died in 1889, the newspaper said that “His love of flowers and garden scenery was conspicuous”, and that he loved to show his garden to visitors. In addition, Mrs Marjorie Coleman told me that he “filled the ground with lotsof lovely shrubs and trees and fruit trees. And a lot of them were unusual ones.”

Marjorie’s parents, Percy and Catherine Brown, bought the house and garden in about 1908. Percy was a corn dealer and farmer, and Catherine organised many social and charity activities.. Marjorie said that her parents “bought Collingwood House because my father was very keen on gardening. And they had about – quite two and a half acres.”

The Browns had two gardeners in charge, and the family “dared not even go and pull a cabbage without asking”. The house was nearly opposite the Public Hall, so that people “used to borrow plants to put along the front of the stage. And very often, some furniture!” Also they used the Browns’ kitchen for making sandwiches – it was much superior to the one at the Hall.

And that’s not all. A few days ago, I was contemplating the names on the War Memorial, first unveiled in 1920. I noticed a thick carpet of bright yellow leaves behind it and to the left. Then I saw their shape – yes, another Ginkgo Biloba tree. How lovely. Perhaps a tree-loving resident donated it.

Fallen leaves from behind the War Memorial, with a line of knitted poppies
Fallen Ginkgo leaves from behind the War Memorial, with a line of knitted poppies

It’s possible that as you go about the town, you will see some others that I don’t know about. You will be walking along, idly looking at the ground, and suddenly you’ll notice that the leaves are this really funny shape. And you’ve found another Ginkgo Biloba tree. Whose ancestors lived in the time of the dinosaurs.

(Since writing this I was told there was at least one Ginkgo tree at the Grove, and I found one near the traffic lights, where the road from the Grove crosses Newland Street. It is growing through a large holly bush)

A version of this article appeared in the Braintree and Witham Times in November 2014

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