Ginkgo biloba

In depth article about this beautiful, ancient and sacred tree. Every garden should have one.
Richard Darlow, 106 Vaughan Road, Vernon Way, Gawber, Barnsley, S75 2NJ, U.K.
Chamaerops No. 13, published online 23-08-2002

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This deciduous 'living fossil' is the only remaining species in the family Ginkgoaceae, but is it a conifer? Or is a broad-leaved tree? It has broad leaves, and it doesn't bear cones. Botanically, though, it is regarded as being from an ancient order of conifers.
Ginkgos have changed little in 150 million years - the distinctive fan-shaped leaves (which somewhat resemble ducks' feet) on present day trees are virtually identical to those of fossils dating back to the Jurassic period.

In prehistoric times, Maidenhair trees grew virtually worldwide including the British Isles (fossils have been found in the Scarborough area). Its distribution drastically diminished however such that it retreated to mountain forests in the provinces of Chekiang in eastern China and Szechwan in western China. No one is sure, however, that it still exists in the natural state.

Long since cultivated, the Maidenhair tree was planted in temple gardens in China and then in Japan. It is considered sacred in the Buddhist religion. It first arrived in Europe in 1730 in Utrecht and then, in 1754, a tree was acquired from a London nurseryman and was subsequently planted at Kew gardens. This specimen still grows there, along with several others. Later, the tree was introduced to the U.S.A.

Its modern name is a Japanese derivation of the Chinese name 'Yin-Kuo' which means 'silver fruit'. Its common name on the other hand is due to the similarity of its leaves to the fronds of the Maidenhair Fern - Adiantum sp. The specific name biloba meaning two lobed - relates to the leaves, which are divided almost in two on young trees. On older trees, leaves are entire with a notch in the middle. There are no distinct veins.

Trees are either male or female. The small knobbly female flowers grow among the leaves and both are produced on the ends of small woody spurs along the branches. Males produce clusters of small green catkins, again on the ends of those same spurs, along with the leaves. 'Swimming' male cells resemble those of cycads; in fact seed development is similar to that of cycads in several respects possibly a feature linked to both plants' prehistoric origins.

Fruit is rarely seen but consists of an oval, green fleshy 'berry' enclosing an edible kernel (these can be eaten like peanuts when roasted). The flesh later rots, giving off a powerful, unpleasant odour and this has led to less frequent planting of female trees.
Ginkgo trees grow in any fertile soil and are best in a sunny situation, but will grow in shade. After more than I 50 million years, they no longer seem prone to pests and disease. Air pollution has little effect on the tree's health and it grows well in large cities in traffic-choked streets; so much so that it has been considered a Parks Department's dream plant! However, they are not commonly planted in the British Isles and are mainly confined to the southern half of England where the summers are warmer.

Trees are generally pyramidal in shape with long, stiff, straight, upright or horizontal branches. With age, the tips of the branches tend to fan out and droop. From a distance, the tree can easily, be overlooked when in leaf, but is more distinctive in winter when its bare branches appear stark, or sculptural, depending on your point of view. An avenue of them certainly provides impact.

The tree is often considered to be at its visual best in late autumn however, when the leaves turn from a bright green to a pure yellow - a photographer's delight, especially when viewed against a blue sky with the autumn sunlight filtering through the foliage. Its beauty is fleeting though; shortly afterwards the leaves fall, a process unfortunately often hastened by a typical English gale!

Ginkgos generally attain a height of 70-80 feet though specimens in England have exceeded this. Where summers are hot (i.e. not England), heights of 125 feet have been recorded.

A number of cultivars exist: 'Fastigiata' is a columnar variety, 'Pendula' has weeping branches while 'Tremonia' has a conical form. If you have the space and would like an exotic tree that is like no other, and which has an impressive history, a Gingko could be the answer.

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