Winter is a great time of year to pay close attention to landscapes as you travel around the state. This is because during winter is when you can find plants with winter interest. Pay attention to what plants are intriguing to look at. We are lucky because there are many plants that give us year-round interest. Ginkgo trees are one such plant.
Ginkgo, Ginkgo biloba, is also called maidenhair tree. It is a large tree that grows up to 50-80 feet tall with a spreading habit. The leaves are arranged alternately on the tree in clusters of 3-5 leaves. Ginkgo is the oldest living species of tree. It was around during the dinosaur era because they have been found in fossil records. The leaves of a ginkgo tree are very unique for a tree. Most trees have netted veins throughout the leaves, but a ginkgo tree has parallel veins in a fan-shaped leaf. In the fall, the bright green leaves turn golden yellow and, at the end of the season, all of the leaves drop over one night. The ginkgo tree has short, knobby spur shoots along the branches for an interesting trait throughout the winter. Ginkgo trees are dioecious, meaning male and female flowers are on separate plants. When purchasing a ginkgo tree, ensure that you purchase a male tree as the female fruits are said to smell like rotting flesh and would not be desirable in any landscape situation.
Photos: The photo on the left shows the leaves in fall color and the pegs that last through winter. The photo on the right shows the leaves during the spring and summer.
There are multiple cultivar choices for the Ginkgo tree, mostly they are selected for their golden fall color, their shape, or the fact they are seedless or a male cultivar. Some good choices include ‘Princeton Sentry’, a male, upright selection with good fall color. ‘Autumn Gold’ is a male selection with good fall color but a narrow in growth habit. For a smaller selection, ‘Jade Butterflies’ only grows up to 15 feet tall and is pyramidal in shape.
Ginkgo trees are a great tree for most any environment on your acreage or in town. They are underutilized and should be planted more. This tree is tolerant of pollution, heat, wind, compacted soils, and soil salts. It does not, however, tolerate standing water. It does best in moist, well-drained soils but can adapt to many growing conditions. It is best used in the landscape as a specimen plant or for shade.
According to the University of Illinois, Ginkgoes almost went extinct in the ice ages, but survived in a few regions of China. In China, some Buddhist monks propagated these trees which helped keep the tree alive. Scientists believe that without the help of the monks, the ginkgo tree would be extinct. Today, many take Ginkgo biloba as an herb supplement to help with brain health. The health benefits have not been confirmed.
Ginkgo trees are unique and interesting throughout the entire year. The leaves are so different from any other tree, making it desirable for any landscape. It is underutilized in Nebraska and should be used more to ensure it doesn’t go extinct like it almost did after the ice ages. Ginkgo is the oldest living tree species found, so keep it in your landscape to ensure future generations can enjoy this tree as much as we do. So, the next time you are looking for a new tree species, look at Ginkgo trees, but make sure you choose a male cultivar.