The Essential Ginkgo Biloba

Ginkgo - Ice Age Extinction to Landscape Specimen

Ginkgo biloba is known as a "living fossil tree". It is a mysterious tree and an ancient old species which is highlighted in this report. The ginkgo tree's genetic line spans the Mesozoic era back to the Triassic period. Closely related species are thought to have existed for over 200 million years.

The ginkgo's taxonomy does not merely follow the normal family classification system but is an entire division called Ginkgophyta within the Plantae kingdom. It predates all deciduous trees and is considered to be a "conifer" that existed along with trees in the division Pinophyta

 Ancient Chinese records are surprisingly complete and describe the tree as ya-chio-tu, meaning a tree with leaves like a duck's foot.

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Ginkgo Biloba - The Living Fossil Tree

Ginkgo Fossil - British Columbia, Canada
Ginkgo Fossil - British Columbia, Canada. Public Domain

Our present-day "living fossil tree" is nearly identical to leaves found in the worldwide fossil record. Several different ancient species have been identified but only the single Ginkgo biloba we know today still exists.

Also known as maidenhair tree, the Ginkgo biloba leaf shape and other vegetative organs are identical to fossils found in the United States, Europe, and Greenland. Our contemporary ginkgo is cultivated and does not exist anywhere in a "wild" state. Scientists think that native ginkgo was destroyed by glaciers that ultimately covered the whole Northern Hemisphere.

The name "maidenhair tree" comes from the ginkgo leaf's resemblance to maidenhair fern foliage. 

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How Ginkgo Biloba Came to North America

Moses Cone Ginkgo
Moses Cone Ginkgo. Steve Nix

Ginkgo biloba was first brought into the United States by William Hamilton for his garden in Philadelphia in 1784. It was a favorite tree of Architect Frank Lloyd Wright and made its way into city landscapes across North America. The tree had an ability to survive pests, drought, storms, ice, city soils, was and still is widely planted.

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The Amazing Ginkgo Biloba Leaf

Ginkgo Leaf
Ginkgo Leaf. Dendrology at Virginia Tech

The Ginkgo leaf is fan-shaped and often compared to a "duck foot". Looking closely, it is about 3 inches across with a relatively deep notch dividing into 2 lobes (thus the name biloba). Numerous veins radiate out of the base with no midrib. The leaf has a beautiful fall yellow color.

More on Ginkgo Biloba

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Ginkgo Biloba and Its Wide North American Range

The Planting Range of Ginkgo Biloba
The Planting Range of Ginkgo Biloba. USFS Illustration

 Ginkgo biloba is not native to North America but is thought to have existed before the glacial activity of the Ice Age. Still, it transplants well and has a large planting range in the United States and Canada.

Ginkgo may grow extremely slow for several years after planting, but will then pick up and grow at a moderate rate, particularly if it receives an adequate supply of water and some fertilizer. But do not overwater or plant in a poorly-drained area.

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Ginkgo's Asian Connection

Ginkgo leaf
Ginkgo leaf. GFDL Permission Granted for Use - Reinhard Kraasch

Ancient Chinese records are surprisingly complete and describe the tree as ya-chio-tu, meaning a tree with leaves like a duck's foot.

Asian people systematically planted the tree and many living ginkgos are known to be more than 5 centuries old. Buddhists not only kept written records but revered the tree and preserved it in temple gardens. Western collectors eventually imported ginkgo trees to Europe and later to North America.

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Ginkgo Has "Stinky Fruit"

Ginkgo Fruit
Ginkgo Fruit. GFDL Permission Granted by Kurt Stueber

The ginkgo is dioecious. That simply means that there are separate male and female plants. Only the female plant produces a fruit. The originally imported tree was often a female and widely distributed throughout North American arriving from Europe to North America. Problem is that the fruit stinks!

As you can imagine, the smell's description ranges from "rancid butter" to "vomit". This foul smell has limited ginkgo's popularity while also causing city governments to actually remove the tree and ban the female from being planted.

Male ginkgoes do not produce a fruit and are now selected as the main cultivars used to transplant in urban communities and on city streets.

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Best Male Ginkgo Varieties

Male Ginkgo
Male Ginkgo. GFDL Permission Granted for Use

The female form of Ginkgo has an undesirable fruit which is messy in the landscape and can produce an undesirable smell. You need to plant only male cultivars.

There are excellent varieties and cultivars available:

 Autumn Gold- male, fruitless, bright gold fall color and rapid growth rate; Fairmont - male, fruitless, upright, oval to pyramidal form; Fastigiata - male, fruitless, upright growth; Laciniata - leaf margins deeply divided; Lakeview - male, fruitless, compact broad conical form; Mayfield - male, upright fastigiate (columnar) growth; Pendula - pendent branches; Princeton Sentry - male, fruitless, fastigiate, narrow conical crown for restricted overhead spaces, popular, 65 feet tall, available in some nurseries; Santa Cruz - umbrella-shaped; Variegata - variegated leaves.

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The Beautiful Moses Cone Ginkgo

Moses Cone Ginkgo
Moses Cone Ginkgo. Steve Nix

This ginkgo image is from a tree next to the Moses Cone Manor house and one of the best examples of specimen ginkgo in a landscape.