There is really only one thing to say about the Ginkgo Tree – plant one. This magnificent deciduous tree is always beautiful to see, whether green in summer, bare in winter, or glowing like molten gold in fall. Although there is just one species, Ginkgo biloba, the numerous varieties give us forms of different shapes and sizes to fit any garden, and it is so adaptable it will grow almost anywhere. There are smaller forms, but this is normally a large tree, reaching 50 feet tall in time, with a bold silhouette of winter branches. The striking leaves have an entirely unique form, and this tree is often called the Maiden-hair tree because the leaves look like giant versions of the leaflets of that beautiful fern. It is famous for being a living fossil, and it has existed in its present form for 200 million years. Once confined to a small area of China, today it is grown around the planet, wherever beauty and toughness are needed. This tree grows almost anywhere, in both hot and cold zones, and it copes well with punishing conditions, from urban environments to bad pruning, yet it still thrives.
The Ginkgo Tree is very adaptable and versatile, and it can be used in many ways – there is sure to be a place for one or more in almost every garden. It is most commonly seen planted as a shade tree on a lawn. It could be the only tree on a smaller front lawn, or one of several, making a park-like setting, on a larger one. It is a lovely background tree, filling the corners of your yard, or as part of the skyline behind beds of other shrubs and flowers.
In a larger space, creating a charming grove of 3 or 5 trees, planted relatively close together, that will be as lovely to see from a distance as it will be to sit in. If you have a very large lawn you can make a charming garden simply by planting a selection of large trees – including two or three Ginkgo, perhaps in different varieties – across it. Space them at varying distances, and in a few years you will have your own private park. For a grove of Ginkgo Trees, space them between 10 and 25 feet apart, and remember not to plant less than 15 feet from a building or property line.
If you have a long driveway, an avenue of Ginkgo Trees would be a lovely entrance. Space them at regular intervals, between 15 and 25 feet apart, depending on how separated you want them to be. Spaced 8 to 12 feet apart they would grow to become a solid screen of leaves in summer, to hide an ugly view or give you privacy. This tree is easily pruned, and so and you could even make a unique hedge with a row of plants 6 feet apart – the soft leaves would be so beautiful to pass by up close.
The Ginkgo Tree is also a popular choice for container planting. A tree could be grown for many years in a large planter or box. Its Chinese origin, to say nothing of its beauty, make it a popular choice for a bonsai tree of any size. Speaking of Asian things, it is also an obvious and ideal tree for a Japanese or Asian-style garden.
This tree in its normal form is a large deciduous tree, growing between 40 and 50 feet tall in time, with a spread between 25 and 30 across. It normally has one central trunk, but trees with multiple trunks may also be seen. The bark is a beautiful soft gray-brown, with deep, forking vertical ridges, giving this tree a lot of character and nobility. The smaller branches are smooth, with a lighter coloring, and they grow in an irregular manner, creating an attractive winter silhouette. One look at a branch in winter shows a very distinctive characteristic we find in this tree. Young branches have buds where the leaf meets the branch (as all trees do) and these buds develop into very short, knobbly stems called ‘spur shoots.’ Leaves develop from these spurs for many years before the branch eventually becomes a leafless limb. This keeps the crown of the tree unusually leafy and dense, with leaves all through it, rather than just at the branch ends.
The leaves of the Ginkgo Tree are totally unique. Each one resembles an open fan, with a roughly triangular shape. The sides are smooth and straight, but the outer edge is irregular, with curving undulations, which looks very elegant. The veins are unique too, and if you look closely you will see how a single vein enters the leaf at the base, and then keeps dividing into two. This makes lines along the leaf, rather than the usual network of veins around a central mid-rib seen in most other trees. The tree was originally named ‘adiantifolia’, after the resembles of these leaves to the leaves of the Maiden-hair fern, Adiantum. Leaves in spring and summer are a rich green, and in fall they turn a glorious saffron yellow, uniformly over the whole tree, except for a glow of slightly pinkish-yellow sometimes seen on the outermost branches. A tree in fall in a truly gorgeous sight to be admired in quiet meditation.
The flowers of the Ginkgo Tree are insignificant. There are separate male and female trees, and it is worth growing a named variety, rather than a seedling, to avoid the risk of a female tree. Those trees produce fruits in clusters of two or three along the branches, which fall to the ground. These are about one inch long, with a soft, yellow-brown covering. So far so good, but the fruit has a bad smell, usually described as vomit (or worse). Handling the fruit can cause a severe skin rash. In the East the nuts inside are a delicacy, tasting a little like pine nuts or chestnuts, but more than a few is toxic, destroying Vitamin B6 in the body. All in all, it is a good thing that named varieties are almost always male trees, so no fruit is produced. Mature males produce small greenish pollen cones in spring, which are rarely noticed.
Ginkgo Trees are remarkable for their hardiness and durability. They are as reliable in zone 3 as they are in zone 9, and they grow in almost every climate, as long as there is a little cold in winter. They will grow in any soil that is not permanently wet, including degraded urban soils, and all soils from heavy clay to sandy gravel. If you are wondering if a Ginkgo Tree will grow on your property, the answer is, ‘Yes.’ It tolerates urban air pollution too, and neglect, which is why it is seen in some cities as a street tree. As an extreme example, six trees survived the 1945 Hiroshima atomic bomb blast. The were growing within one mile of the center of the blast – they were charred but re-sprouted and they are still alive today.
Ginkgo Trees are not fast-growing, but they are certainly durable and long-lived. It is worth giving your new tree some attention to get it started, and to see good growth in the first years. Young trees are not particularly attractive, often with gawky, awkward branching, but don’t worry, it will soon become a tree of grace and beauty all year round. Prepare the soil by digging over a wide area, at least 3 feet across, for the roots to spread into. Add some rich organic material, like compost or rotted manure, and use some of this as a mulch over the roots, keeping it clear of the trunk itself.
Soak the pot with water the night before planting, and after you remove the tree from the pot, make two or three long vertical cuts with a sharp knife down the root ball, from top to bottom, to free-up the circling roots and encourage their spread. Water thoroughly when planting and place the tree at the same depth as it was in the pot. Water weekly for the first season, and during dry periods in future years, until your tree is well-established.
The growth during the first few years after planting could be slow, but once your tree has become established it will grow 1 or 2 feet a year, becoming beautiful soon enough – the best things are always worth waiting a little time for.
Apart from watering during extended dry spells, this tree really needs no care. It is invariably free of insect attack and diseases, and its natural growth habit is the best one, so no formative pruning is needed. Should you be growing it as a hedge or screen, shortening back longer branches will encourage denser growth. The Ginkgo Tree will tolerate severe pruning if it must be done, and new growth will sprout from deep inside even very old branches, but if you have chosen the planting spot well (not too close to a building, and not underneath power lines, for example), then pruning will normally never be needed at all.
The Ginkgo Tree (pronounced: gin-ko), is called Ginkgo biloba by botanists. The unusual name comes from the Japanese name, 銀杏, pronounced ginnan, or ginkyō. This tree was found in 1690 by the German botanist Engelbert Kaempfer. It was growing in the grounds of a temple in Japan, and for centuries it was only found in Buddhist and Confucian temple grounds, since both religions consider it a sacred tree. Wild trees have been very hard to find, and the first trees, found in 1989 by Peter Del Tredici, from Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum, in western Zhejiang Province, turned out to be too genetically uniform to be truly wild. The most likely genuinely wild trees grow in the Dalou Mountains, near the Tibetan border. It is a curious irony that this tough tree, grown around the world, is very rare in nature. It was introduced into Europe in 1730, and the French plant explorer André Michaux brought the first trees to America around 1800.
Since its introduction to gardens, several variations have been found, including:
‘Autumn Gold’ – for fall color, on a full-sized tree with a natural form, this variety is unbeatable. A male tree, it was selected as a seedling in 1957.
‘Jade Butterflies’ – a dwarf male tree, growing eventually to 15 feet tall and 10 feet wide. Vase-shaped, with leaves split vertically almost in two, resembling butterfly wings.
‘Magyar’ – a pyramidal form, discovered in New Jersey.
‘Pendula’ – a group name for trees with side branches that grow horizontal or downwards, making a weeping outline. Varieties such as ‘Ross Moore’, and ‘Weeping Wonder’ all belong in this group.
‘Saratoga’ – a popular slightly smaller male tree, growing to 40 feet by 30 feet.
‘Tit’ (‘Chi-Chi’) – a dense bush with many branches, found as a witch’s broom in Japan.
Goldpire™ (‘Blagon’) – a tight column to 40 feet tall but never wider than 10 or 15 feet, with branches down to the ground for decades. Introduced from France.
Presidential Gold (‘The President’) – forms a large tree that is fuller when young than most other varieties.
Princeton Sentry® (‘PNI 2720’) – a more slender male tree, almost columnar when young, maturing to 50 feet tall and no more than 20 feet wide.
A survivor from the age of dinosaurs, the Ginkgo Tree is always an outstanding choice anytime you want a large tree. It has gained a bad reputation in some cities because of indiscriminate planting of female trees, and the resulting stinky mess, but named varieties are almost all male, so forget it bad name and consider how very much this tree has to offer when making an easy, low-maintenance garden.