Gingko, for the Most Spectacular Fall

October 2018

Gingko biloba (meaning “twolobed,” in reference to its distinctive, fan-shaped leaf) is an incredible deciduous tree.

A native of China, the gingko was introduced into the western horticultural world in the mid-18th century where people have marveled at its features ever since. It is a “monotypic clade,” which means there is only one species in its genus and only one genus in the family. In other words, it has no known relatives, a lone survivor of the Ice Age that wiped out the dinosaurs.

Its earliest leaf fossil dates from 270 million years ago, so the gingko is what Charles Darwin termed “a living fossil.” Such endurance has garnered the gingko a reverence for its ability to survive, and it is often found planted around temple sites in Japan where it is considered sacred. Famously, six gingko trees even survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. To call it resilient is an understatement.

A golden carpet of gingko leaves collects beneath its branches. This is the gingko’s “leaf fall,” where its leaves drop in a matter of hours.

A golden carpet of gingko leaves collects beneath its branches. This is the gingko’s “leaf fall,” where its leaves drop in a matter of hours.

It has become an urban workhorse because of its ability to survive pollution, and it has long been promoted for its medicinal properties. Its cast-iron constitution and “sunny” disposition make it much respected in the South, especially in autumn, when its glorious yellow foliage and accelerated “leaf fall” create grand drama.

The gingko behaves like a conifer, but it has leaves, not needles. Females produce a rounded botanical part that is not actually a fruit, but a “naked seed,” whose fleshy apricot-looking covering makes the familiar gingko-stinko when it decays. For this reason, city planners who have prized the tree for its hardiness always intend to plant male clones.

A gingko, however, does not flower for the first 20 years, so its sex in early age is hard to determine. Another bizarre trait of the species can compound the issue of sex selection: gingkos have been known to convert spontaneously from one sex to the other, so despite the best labeling and sorting diligence on the part of humans, sometimes Nature just has her own way.

The interior kernels of the seeds are highly desirable; nutritious with an excellent flavor, these nuts are considered delicacies in Asian cuisine. The nuts can be sautéed in oil where they crack open like pistachios. In Asia, they are also boiled in sugar and eaten after dinner as a sweet treat said to counteract the drinking of too much alcohol. There is even a breakfast cereal that has gingko-leaf extract. Teas and herbal supplements have long been made from the leaves.

The gingko’s gorgeous green leaves resemble a maidenhair fern, so it is often called the maidenhair tree. The leaves are notable for their unique fan shape, ridged texture and distinctive edges. The leaf form is so exceptional that it is often translated into jewelry and art objects.

L-R: The female gingko tree produces a rounded botanical part that looks like a fruit but is actually a “naked seed.” Golden gingko leaves lie on the ground, showing their distinctive fan-shaped leaves.

L-R: The female gingko tree produces a rounded botanical part that looks like a fruit but is actually a “naked seed.” Golden gingko leaves lie on the ground, showing their distinctive fan-shaped leaves.

Among the gingko leaf’s other interesting properties is its insect repellent quality. The leaves were often used in olden times as bookmarks because they repelled silverfish and book lice. One of the most remarkable aspects of this deciduous plant behavior is the way the gingko rushes its process of leaf  dropping. YouTube videos have captured this amazing “leaf fall” where the gingko drops most of its leaves in a matter of hours, leaving a dazzling golden carpet  beneath its branches.

My dog Daisy, an incurable jumper into leaf piles, would have loved a gingko. The tree is as delightful and welcome a seasonal treat as the ice cream truck in summer, so round up the neighborhood kids at the fall drop and frolic.

The gingko is a sturdy, adaptable tree. Its many unique qualities includes its ability to survive, its medicinal properties, and its insect-repellent qualities.

The gingko is a sturdy, adaptable tree. Its many unique qualities includes its ability to survive, its medicinal properties, and its insect-repellent qualities.

Gingkos make fabulous shade trees and are best situated in the open where their full glory can be showcased and appreciated. They need to be in the larger setting since they grow to 50 feet or more and spread to 30 feet in width over 15 to 20 years. They grow quickly as young trees. The majority of their width is not put on until the tree is mature, so young trees are taller than wide.

Gingkos prefer full sun or some light afternoon shade. The soil should be well-draining, but they are salt and pH tolerant. They tolerate almost anything except boggy conditions. They are irregularly shaped trees — branches jutting off to the side display a lovely, irregular charm. After the leaves drop, the tree’s interesting shape becomes apparent, and the large buds emanating from the stems provide great interest in the winter landscape.

As if the gingko has not offered enough exceptional traits, here is one more. The tree often develops a ring of new shoots around its original trunk from structures called chi-chis, special organs of regeneration that allow them to survive catastrophic injury. These sprouts regenerate from the base of the tree and stay in a suppressed state as a sort of insurance policy for injury. If something happens to the main trunk to damage it, the sprouts form a second generation of trees. In China, there have been as many as four generations of gingko trees to grow in huge circles.

The chi-chi sprouts have given nurserymen and gardeners a compact way to grow a gingko — a bonsai version. So if you want the dwarf representation (about 30″ tall x 20″ wide) of the ancient majestic tree, you can try your hand at the bonsai style. You could enjoy the same bright-green fanned leaves during the growing season and their turn to butter-yellow in the fall.

If ever there were an adaptable and sturdy tree, the gingko is it. To answer the question “When is the best time to plant a tree,” old-timers quip “20 years ago,” since it takes a good while for trees to get to an impressive size. Well, it’s fall — maybe you need to go right now and plant this spectacular specimen.