Few nursery trees have as interesting a story as the Gingko. One reason is that Ginko trees are living fossils, dating back to the Early Jurassic period over 270 million years ago, surviving to the present day very much unchanged. Very few life forms today can make that claim. Ginkgo was once widespread throughout the world, but by two million years ago they were only found in small area of China. That’s still the only place they grow wild, but Gingko has become a very popular landscape tree worldwide.
Gingko leaves are unique among seed plants, fan-shaped with veins radiating out into the leaf blade. Two veins begin at the base and fork repeatedly but never branch out the way other tree leaves do. The common name “maidenhair tree” is because the leaves resemble the maidenhair fern. They turn bright lemon yellow before dropping in fall. Some Ginkgo trees are female and others male. Female plants produce light yellow-brown, soft, fruit-like seeds known for their unpleasant smell, like rancid butter or vomit. This is why good nurseries only sell male Gingko trees. Although Gingko are easy to propagate from seed, nursery-grown ginkgo trees are male cuttings grafted onto plants grown from seed, because the male trees will not produce smelly seeds.
Like ferns, algae and mosses but unlike most trees, Gingkos fertilize their seeds using sperm, which are actually able to move about using flagella which have a cilia-like motion. The flagella/cilia apparatus pulls the body of the sperm forwards, propelling it to the female sex organs inside the tree’s flower.
Ginkgos are large trees, normally reaching 80-100 feet, with some specimens in China being over 164 feet. They are usually deep rooted and resistant to wind and snow damage. A combination of resistance to disease, insect-resistant wood and the ability to form aerial roots and sprouts makes ginkgos long-lived, with some specimens claimed to be more than 2,500 years old. Ginkgo is native to China; where there are examples believed to be over 1,500 years old. Because of its status in Buddhism and Confucianism, the ginkgo is also widely planted in Korea and parts of Japan; over the centuries it has become established in forests there. The ginkgo leaf is the symbol of the Urasenke school of Japanese tea ceremony. Ginkgos are popular subjects for bonsai; they can be kept artificially small and tended over centuries.
Ginkgos have lasted since prehistory because they are tough survivors, tolerating pollution and confined soil spaces. They rarely suffer disease problems, even in city conditions, and are attacked by few insects. An extreme example of their hardiness is that in Hiroshima, Japan, where six trees growing less than a mile from the 1945 atom bomb explosion were among the few living things in the area to survive the blast. While almost all other plants (and animals) in the area were destroyed, the Ginkgos survived and are still alive today.
Their nut-like seed kernels are a traditional Chinese food, served at special occasions such as weddings and the Chinese New Year. In Chinese culture, they are believed to have health benefits; some also consider them to have aphrodisiac qualities. Japanese cooks add ginkgo seeds to some traditional dishes, or serve them as a garnish. Extracts of ginkgo leaves are believed to have healthful and curative properties. According to some studies, ginkgo can significantly improve attention in healthy individuals. Many studies have indicated other health benefits.
I first saw Gingko trees growing in an oil refinery, where they thrived despite noxious fumes and poor soil. Since that time we’ve planted dozens of them, and never had one fail. We recommend them as memorial trees because of their ruggedness, their timeless quality and their connection to the earliest forms of life on earth. We believe that a tree with the ability to survive hundreds, even thousands of years, is the perfect choice for a living memorial.
Steve Boehme is a landscape designer/installer specializing in landscape “makeovers”. “Let’s Grow” is published weekly; column archives are on the “Garden Advice” page at www.goodseedfarm.com. For more information is available at www.goodseedfarm.com or call GoodSeed Farm Landscapes at (937) 587-7021.