It’s pretty fitting that the Ginkgo tree typically is one of the last hardwoods to unfurl its brilliant gold fall color and lose its elegant fan-shaped leaves. After all, shouldn’t the season’s grand finale be reserved for what’s considered the oldest living species of trees on the planet – a fossil from the dinosaur age, no less?
Ginkgos – ironically, less known than by their common name, the maidenhair tree – have a history as colorful as their bright yellow leaves. The Chinese Ginkgo biloba trees were cultivated by Buddhist monks as far back as about 1100 A.D., growing them in palace and temple gardens for not only their beauty but also their medicinal and culinary uses. The fruit of the trees is still considered a delicacy in China and has been used to treat asthma, bronchitis and chronic coughs. In addition, the extract from their leaves is used to improve short-term memory loss.
Yet it’s the Ginkgo’s autumn display that makes the tree so prized. This deciduous broadleaf – hardy in zones 4 through 9 – is a slow grower but can reach 50 to 80 feet tall at maturity, with a canopy spread of 30 to 40 feet wide. Its uniquely shaped leaves start out light green in spring and by early fall, take on bands of gold before turning pure sunshine yellow in late fall. After dropping its leaves, the blanket of gold covering the ground can be nearly as breathtaking as the fall canopy itself.
With their long history, it’s hardly surprising that these are tough trees, having survived the atomic bomb blasts of Hiroshima. They are drought tolerant and disease resistant and can tolerate city pollution, making them great candidates for street trees. While they will tolerate partial shade, they prefer full sun for creating their most brilliant color. For soil, Ginkgos prefer well-drained sandy loam. (When planting in less than ideal conditions, add several inches of sand to the bottom and sides of the planting hole).
Like all trees, Ginkgos should be planted in fall or spring when conditions are least challenging. Because these trees tend to grow crookedly, stake them to maintain a straight trunk. Pruning is not necessary because a healthy Ginkgo will grow upwards, not out. Simply fertilize twice a year and maintain adequate soil moisture.
For all its qualities, there is one downfall that warrants noting. When female Ginkgos drop their fruit, the nuts – about the size of a cherry tomato -- emit a foul odor and create a slippery pulp on surfaces. Because of this nuisance, many communities that have planted them as street trees have unfortunately later chosen to cut them down.
With the beauty comes the beast...