Photo by Mark Kane
Tough, trouble-free, and long-lived, ginkgo is not just a good yard tree, it’s also a wonderful curiosity. There are imprints in rock from 50 million years ago that look exactly like the leaves of today’s ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba). In fact, the species is often called a “living fossil.”
The gingko tree also has ancient relatives, maybe even a kinship with ferns, yet it shares features of deciduous trees like maples (it drops its leaves), and conifers like pines (the leaves have parallel veins). Its closest (but distant) relatives today are cycads, which go back 190 million years and always make me wonder if dinosaurs grazed them. Though there were once many ginkgo-like plants, the pre-eminent survivor, Ginkgo biloba, also called the maidenhair tree, is native only to central China.
The branches tend to grow horizontally, but there are trees with narrow silhouettes and upright branches, like ‘Princeton Sentry.’ The bark is gray and furrowed. The leaves are fan-shaped (unique among plants that make seeds) and the veins radiate from the leaf stem almost in parallel, a bit like the veins of conifers. Unlike conifers, however, the ginkgo drops its leaves every autumn. Some trees first turn a gorgeous tawny gold.
Ginkgo trees are either male or female. Females make small soft fruits that have a very unpleasant odor. There’s a female tree around the corner from me that drops its fruit on a sidewalk where walkers crush it underfoot. The smell is in the air for half a block. So, before you buy a young tree, make sure you know its gender!
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