A Living Fossil — Ginkgo Biloba

The epithet, biloba, is Latin for two-lobed, describing the leaf that is fan-shaped and split in the middle.
The epithet, biloba, is Latin for two-lobed, describing the leaf that is fan-shaped and split in the middle.

Once upon a prehistoric time, the deciduous Ginkgo biloba grew around the globe. When we look at this tree, we witness a living link to a primeval time, long before mammals became prolific on the planet.

Under the tree’s tall canopy, the dinosaurs roamed. It is not hard to imagine these majestic beings rubbing their skin across the tree’s craggy bark to scratch an itch from time to time, or stretching long necks to reach the leaves and seeds.

Yet this is not a fairy tale. Ginkgo biloba earned the name survivor after growing over 200 million years ago, making it possibly the oldest living seed plant alive today. Darwin called the gingko a “living fossil.”

At one time, the ginkgo family was a dominant group of flora during prehistoric times. The Ice Age wiped out all the wild trees from the Western Hemisphere. Ginkgo biloba (commonly known as maidenhair tree) is the only surviving species in the genus in the Eastern Hemisphere.

A mature ginkgo tree reaches 50 to 80 feet tall and 25 feet wide.
A mature ginkgo tree reaches 50 to 80 feet tall and 25 feet wide.

Close to home, in a state park near Vantage, Washington, above the Columbia River, people visit the petrified wood of these trees.

Unfortunately, the number of trees declined after dinosaurs became extinct. It is believed that these ancient animals spread the seed. Today, the tree is native to two areas in China, although at one time was thought to be extinct in the wild.

Before it was rediscovered growing in the wild, many believed that Buddhist monks saved the tree from extinction. The monks consider gingko trees as sacred, and plant them in their monastery gardens as a link between the prehistoric past and today.

However, in 1914, one tree was found growing naturally in one province in China. In another area near Wuchuan there is an authenticated wild population of the maidenhair tree. The Arnold Arboretum of Massachusetts verified the population around the turn of the century.

The tree remained unchanged over millions of years. Ginkgo biloba’s long, rich history reaches into modern times. In 1784, near Philadelphia, William Hamilton brought a tree over from England. The tree was absent from the Western Hemisphere for eons, until Hamilton planted it in the Woodland Cemetery.

In autumn, Ginkgo 'Tubiforme' leaves convert to a rich, golden-yellow hue.
In autumn, Ginkgo ‘Tubiforme’ leaves convert to a rich, golden-yellow hue.

The Japanese consider the trees bearers of hope. One tree grew next to a temple located 1.5 kilometers away from where, in 1945, the United States exploded an atomic bomb over Hiroshima. The ginkgo survived the blast that destroyed the building next to it. The community rebuilt the temple with stairs surrounding the surviving tree. An engraving proclaims, “No more Hiroshima.” Three other ginkgo trees survived the blast on that fateful day and continue to grow.

The name comes from the Chinese word ginkgo, meaning silver apricot, which describes the seed. Biloba is Latin for two-lobed, describing the leaf that is fan-shaped and split in the middle.

Ginkgo’s common name — maidenhair tree — came about because its fan-shaped leaf resembles a maidenhair fern’s distinct foliage. Clusters of three to five alternate leaves or single leaves on long shoots are fan-shaped, and 2-3 inches long and wide.

In spring, the new leaves are bright green. In autumn, when the chlorophyll retreats from the leaves, they convert to a rich, golden-yellow hue. The foliage then hangs on the tree for a lengthy time, sometimes as late as December. Then the tree quickly and cleanly lets the leaves go, carpeting the ground in gold.

Ginkgo 'White Lightning' has green leaves with white variegation.
Ginkgo ‘White Lightning’ has green leaves with white variegation.

Maidenhair trees transplant easily and thrive in the Pacific Northwest. Although young trees have an awkward lanky period, they grow out of the gawky stage as the trees mature. It is not advisable to prune young trees, as they will not grow.

If you want fruit, you will need to plant both a male and a female tree. Be forewarned. There is no delicate way to describe the odor of ginkgo’s rotting fruit — the stench is like vomit or poop. If you don’t want fruit, only plant a male tree. Choose a named clone, not a seedling, to ensure you receive the right gender.

The flowering period is in early spring. Male flowers are 1-inch-long catkins. Female flowers are 1.5- to 2-inch long pedicels bearing one or two green ovules. When pollinated, they turn tan to orange and produce a 1- to 1.5-inch long seed with a fleshy, plum-shaped covering.

Ginkgo biloba are excellent street trees, provided there are no overhead power lines. The exquisite foliage resists insects, while the tree is impervious to drought, fungus, disease and air pollution.

Ginkgo BilobaNote that it is advisable to plant only male trees along the street. Regrettably, some cities planted rows of these beautiful trees — male and female — along their roads without regard to the fruit mess and the gross, rotting fragrance every year.

Medicinally, Ginkgo biloba was used for thousands of years to treat many ailments. Today, the Chinese use it to strengthen the heart and lungs, and treat inflammation. Germany approved the use of ginkgo in treatments for Alzheimer’s. Although the treatments do not cure the disease, it helps treat the symptoms.

Both the Chinese and Japanese use the seeds for other medicinal and culinary purposes. Many people take Ginkgo biloba pills to help strengthen their memory.

The maidenhair tree is a survivor. Some trees grow to be 3,000 years old. Planting a Ginkgo biloba is establishing a legacy that will last for many eons.

Ginkgo Biloba

  • Hardiness: USDA zones 4-9
  • Mature size: Height: 50 to 80 feet, width 25 feet
  • Light: Full sun
  • Soil: The tree prefers sandy, deep, moist soil, but will grow in almost any soil.
  • Feeding: None
  • Propagation methods: Sow seeds in containers as soon as they are ripe. Take semi-ripe cuttings in summer.
  • Pruning methods: Prune in late winter to early spring to remove crossing branches or wayward shoots and maintain a healthy framework.