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Ginkgo biloba – an Ancient Ornamental Tree by Don Urbanus

             The Ginkgo biloba tree is a “living fossil”.  It is also known as the Maidenhair tree because its fan shaped leaves have a resemblance to a Maidenhair fern.  Various ancestors of this tree were growing 270 million years ago when there was only one supercontinent called Pangaea.  7 million years ago the Ginkgo disappeared from the fossil record of North America and was gone from Europe by about 2.5 million years ago.  Mass extinctions, asteroids hitting the earth, continents breaking up, dinosaurs coming and going, and ice ages have taken their toll but the Ginkgo still held on and survived in a small area in China.

            Ginkgos are extremely long lived with claims of specimens in China approaching 2500 years old or more.  Trees planted a thousand years ago next to temples in China are still revered.  Ginkgos are thought to protect temples from fire and perhaps that is the case.  Most of the trees died in the great earthquake and fire of Tokyo of 1923 except the Ginkgos.  One temple was saved because of the many Ginkgos that surrounded it.   The bark and leaves are thought to secrete a sap that acts as a fire retardant.  Our own Giant Sequoias survive chiefly because of their resistance to fire.

            In fact, Ginkgos are so tough that six of them were the only living things to survive less than a mile or so of the atomic bomb blast on Hiroshima.  Some of them were planted next to temples, gardens or schools, all of which were destroyed.  They are still alive and thriving today.  There is actually a website dedicated to them.  These surviving trees are very important to the Japanese and a symbol and hope that no more “Hiroshima’s” will ever happen again.

            There really is no tree on earth quite like it.  It is more closely related to a conifer like a spruce or pine tree than a maple but it is also is the only living link between the lower plants like ferns and cycads and the higher plants like conifers.  The veins in the leaf all run parallel unlike a maple which has netted veins.  In fact, if you could glue a bunch of pine needles together the resulting leaf would look something like a Ginkgo. 

            Ginkgo trees can be female or male.  The female gets a creamy colored fruit the size of a large cherry.  Old fruit, usually lying on the ground, has been described as smelling like rancid butter.  However, the fruit is used as food and also medicinally.  Various studies have been inconclusive about the benefits of taking Ginkgo, which is supposed to help the memory.  I wonder if they were eating it fresh or ground up in a pill form.  In any case, do your research before taking Ginkgo since it might interfere with other drugs like blood thinners.    

            My interest has mostly been in the ornamental aspects of the tree.  It is eventually a large spreading tree but narrow when young. No tree can take smog better than a Ginkgo.  They are also very insect and disease resistant.  In over 30 years in the nursery business, I have never sprayed them for anything.  In summer, the unusual fan-shaped leaves are a nice fresh green and in the fall, they turn bright yellow.  Unlike most trees, the leaves keep their bright yellow color for a long time when they fall on the ground looking like someone scattered gold under the tree.

            They have long been a subject for Bonsai enthusiasts and do well in pots.  Seedlings are sometimes available but there is no way that I know of to tell if you have a male or female tree until it flowers.  Grafted males like Fairmont, Autumn Gold or Saratoga are the most common varieties available in nurseries.  There are some rare dwarf varieties like Jade Butterfly, Munchkin and others from specialty nurseries.   

            There are trees, and there are trees, but nothing is quite like a Ginkgo.



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