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A Most Beautiful Tree

By Therese Ciesinski, GardenSMART

Ginkgoes are beautiful trees, tall, solid, and stately, with leaves that look like a geisha’s fan. They turn a brilliant gold in autumn, and when the wind blows the whole tree looks like it shimmers. I always intend to write about ginkgoes in the fall, when they are at their most glorious, but other topics come up and I never get around to it. I drive by one almost every day, and am always impressed by its stature and grace. Its massiveness grounds the 18th century farmhouse beneath it, tree and house both growing older together.

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Yet it’s possible that this tree will still be standing long after the house is gone. Given the right conditions, ginkgoes are extremely long-lived, able to survive more than a thousand years.

Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) is the only specimen in the Ginkgoaceae family. It’s the oldest living tree species. Called a living fossil, ginkgoes have been around for 200 million years.

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The tree is native to China, but found in the wild there in only two small areas. Trees sold now are mostly cultivars rather than the straight species. In the late 18th century a plant collector brought three trees to the U.S. from China, and the lone survivor still grows in Bartram’s Garden in Philadelphia. It is the oldest ginkgo in this country.

The plant is dioecious, which means a male and a female tree are needed to produce seed. However, the fleshy seed – the size of a cherry tomato – is messy and smells awful, which is why you’ll mostly find only male trees for sale.

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Photograph: Agnieszka Kwiecień, Nova, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

These are very large, slow-growing trees. Fully grown, a tree may be 50 to 100 feet tall, and 30 to 50 feet wide, depending on the cultivar. When mature it is a stunning shade tree. Ginkgoes can also be trained into incredible bonsai.

As for planting location, ginkgoes need soil that’s moist, well-drained, and ideally on the sandy side. They are not fussy about pH. In the north, give them a spot in full sun, in the south, part sun. They are hardy in USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 3-9, which means in most of the U.S. Spring planting is best.

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Photograph: Daderot, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

These are tough trees: resistant to drought, heat, wind, salt, air pollution, and compacted soil, making them a good choice for urban areas. They are deer resistant, and aren’t bothered by pests or diseases.

Like all trees, even those reported as drought-tolerant, ginkgoes need to be watered regularly the first year or two after planting to help the roots acclimate. The roots grow down rather than out, so they don’t heave up sidewalks or asphalt; another reason they are popular in cities.

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Cultivars include ‘Bryson City’, ‘Golden Globe’, ‘Kew’, and ‘Autumn Globe’. When shopping, you may also see ginkgo referred to by its common name, maidenhair.

In fall, a ginkgo will drop all its leaves in one day, after a hard frost or heavy rainstorm. If there’s no wind, the leaves lie under the tree like a golden carpet.

There’s one downside to the lovely ginkgo. In the U.S., they don’t really offer much to wildlife, and overplanting them – which often happens in urban areas, given how tough they are – can lead to a decline in wildlife diversity.

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Photos and story by Monrovia Nursery Company

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