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
on this article:
Click here to read them or to add your own.
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
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
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
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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