Gardening Magazine

Plant of the Week: Ginkgo Biloba

By Davis Landscape Architecture @DavisLandArch

Position: Flourishes in full sun.

Soil: Moist but well drained.

Flowering period: Late spring to early summer.

Eventual Height: 30m

Eventual Spread: 8m

Hardiness: USDA Zone 3a-9b

Family: Ginkgoaceae

Ginkgo biloba is a deciduous tree with an upright habit that becomes wider and more open as it matures. It also gains furrowed dull grey bark as it ages. Its leaves are lobed, flat, fan- shaped, mid to yellow-green and taper into the stalks. This tree is dioecious, the male plants carry catkin-like pendulous, cylindrical yellow flowers borne in clusters, the female plants bear produce plum-like yellow-green fruit from unobtrusive ovules on short stalks.

G. biloba is commonly known as the Maidenhair Tree due to its leaves being similar to the Maidenhair fern. It was introduced to the west from temple gardens in Chekiang Province, China, in 1758.  Fossils of this tree have been found that date back some 270 million years and this plant is only still in existence due to the care of Chinese monks who have cultivated it for over a thousand years. It was believed to be extinct in the wild until stands were discovered in the Zhejiang province in Eastern China but the genetic uniformity among these stands would suggest they were also planted by monks. How this trees became so rare in the wild is a mystery to me considering how resilient they are; they can create clones from aerial roots in response to damage or stress but the original tree can also withstand an huge amount of damage, from full carvings of statues within their trunk to being just over a thousand metres from the epicentre of an atomic blast, such as the specimen at the Hosen-Ji temple in Hiroshima. In the UK it is also resistant to disease and its wood is not very susceptible to insect damage.

Ginkgo is a westernisation of its Chinese name by Engelbert Kaempfer who first discovered the species. A closer phonetic spelling would however be ‘ginkyo’. The specific epithet biloba was given to the species by Linneas and is derived from the Latin, in reverence to the leaves split lobed appearance.

Ginkgo biloba with Ben Affleck on the bench

Ginkgo biloba with Ben Affleck on the bench (14/05/2011, Paris)

The landscape architect will find this plant is useful open, upright specimen tree.  Due to its tolerance of pollution and most soil conditions this tree is very suitable in the urban context, including street tree. Male trees from grafted stock can be specified as the fruit of the female specimens is well noted for its unappealing smell.

A popular cultivar is G. biloba ‘Autumn Gold’ which is a clone of a male plant that produces a good autumn colour but is not as hardy as the species with a range from 6a-9b.

This plant will tolerate almost any soil conditions; it will be happy in acid, neutral or alkaline pH levels, in loam, sand, clay or chalk and facing any aspect in a sheltered or exposed location.

This plant is primarily wind pollinated.

The Royal Horticultural Society have given it their prestigious Award of Garden Merit.

Maintenance: Dead or damaged material can be removed in spring.

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