Cambridge Curiosity Cabinet: Cambridge’s oldest residents

Sian Avery 15 February 2015

Sitting on street corners, carved with valleys and browned with decades, the city’s oldest citizens have lived through a lot. The moon landing, Hitler’s defeat, Victoria’s coronation; some even saw Petty Cury (the passage between Cindies and market square) when it was just a dirt track in 1788…

Cambridge is home to some really historic trees which are all too easy to walk past without even noticing. Of course there are a lot of poorly backed up myths, like the tree in the middle of Trinity’s New Court being the one which dropped apples for Newton (despite being a chestnut tree), but also a lot of more legitimate stories.

One of the most notable ones is the oriental plane tree, Platanus orientalis, one of the best givers of shade because of their big leaves and arm-spreading personality. Hippocrates, sheltering from the midday Greek sun, taught the first medical students under oriental plane trees on Kos, and a venerably old one still stands where he taught. Seeds from this tree were brought to Cambridge and a daughter of Hippocrates’ makeshift classroom now stands leafy guard outside Addenbrooke’s as a fitting reminder of medics’ Hippocratic oaths.

The most dramatic plane tree in the city was probably planted quietly in 1802 to compete with the much more in-your-face planting of a much less exciting one in Jesus (the University Orator dedicated it and there was a tree party afterwards), but we don’t actually know quite how old it is. Its bulk fills a side of the Fellows’ Garden at Emma and is twisted and neurotic. Its branches leave the trunk and throw themselves downwards to the ground. Some twist around each other, in one place rubbing each other so hard that the tissues have grafted together. Others curve elegantly towards the earth and, bizarrely for a plane tree, send out roots to reconnect with the ground and make a sweet ramp for squirrels. It is well worth a visit if you fancy a duck-feeding trip.

Watching the entrance to the Lloyds outside Christ’s is a living fossil. Its unique leaves listen to passing walkers in the day, but at night, met with Cindies chat and the guy who plays the harmonica, its thoughts turn home to dinosaurs and Buddhist monasteries. This is a Ginkgo tree, a species so primal that it was already ancient when dinosaurs first evolved.

The Ginko tree was thought long extinct by Victorians, who saw Ginkgo biloba’s peculiar fan-shaped leaves embedded, fossilised in rocks but nothing even slightly similar in a living plant. So when travellers to the East saw trees with these leaves in a remote region of China where they had been tended to as holy by Buddhist monks, they were so shocked that they brought home seeds and a few gingkoes were planted. Their strange revival and quirky biology have led to the gingko leaf motif, wrapped in DNA, being used as the Cambridge Plant Science department’s fitting logo. If you like the shape of the leaves, this department in the Downing Site has impressively cultivated a Gingko tree from a seed taken in Montpelier into a vine, which sprawls along the entire back wall of the department. If you get far enough down Mill Road, the route becomes a very rare Gingko-lined avenue. It’s an incongruous sight to see the path to the outskirts of Cambridge framed by prehistoric trees, but a pretty one – go for a wander and see.