Ginkgo biloba – an Ancient Ornamental Tree by Don
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.
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
There are trees,
and there are trees, but nothing is quite like a Ginkgo.