An unapologetic plant geek shares advice and opinions on gardening, the contrived and the natural landscape, as well as occasional topics from the other side of the gate.

November 22, 2008

This Geek Loves Ginkgo

Two weeks ago I found myself in Smithfield, Va. and came across one of my favorite trees, the Ginkgo biloba. The leaves were at their seasonal peak, and knowing the habit of this tree, if I had been there a day later most of the leaves would have been carpeting the ground. This particular Ginkgo had been butchered to make room for the utility lines, which is why I did not take a larger shot. Not only is this one of my favorite trees, it was planted in front of one of my favorite houses in a town full of architectural gems. Like a lot of houses in Smithfield, the Gwaltney Mansion is built on a foundation of ham. In my part of the world, when Smithfield ham is served at wedding receptions, the marriage will be happier. The dead will rest easier if it is on the buffet after the funeral, and Christmas would be just another day off without it. That's enough talk about pork, let's look at trees.

There are several reasons that the Ginkgo is one this plant geek's favorite trees. First of all, it is a living fossil that began appearing 270 million years ago, and it is the only currently living species in the Ginkgoaceae family. Think of all the plants that would show up at a family reunion of the Rosaceae, Cupressaceae or the Magnoliaceae families, you would need to rent a ballroom. The surviving members of the Gingoaceae family could hold their reunion in a phone booth. The Ginkgo has been planted and revered in Asia for thousands of years, but there is considerable doubt that any wild ones still remain. This tree will outlive its planter, and there are specimens in China over 1000 years old. One of the reasons this tree is so long lived, is that it is tough. It can tolerate temperatures in zones 3 to 8, and even into zone 9. It can survive in urban areas with heavy pollution, and it will live where other plants fail in those awful holes in concrete sidewalks that are well-intentionally left for trees. It is also very salt tolerant. I planted one for my parents next to their marsh, within sight of the Atlantic that is covered by salt water at least once a year and it thrives.

Here are a few more shots of a specimen in a local Norfolk park. These were taken just before the leaves turned golden earlier in November.

A very poignant, but great example of the Ginkgo's durability, comes from Hiroshima. When the atomic bomb was dropped on the city near the end of WWII, most living things in the city-center were killed instantly, but four Ginkgo trees managed to survive. Their charred broken trunks re-sprouted where they were planted and thrive to this day.

I found a great website created by Cor Kwant on the Ginkgo at:

It includes pictures of the surviving Hiroshima Ginkgo trees at:


  1. Hey Les,

    I think we used to have a couple of these outside of our office at Farm Bureau in downtown Richmond. They grew in little holes in the concrete. Do they produce a stinky berry? Ours produced a horrible smelling berry a couple of times a year. Somebody told me only the "male" tree produced them, but I think they were pulling my leg.

    PS I finally figured out how to add your site to my RSS feeds.


  2. You seem to be reading my mind again ;-)

    Just last night I was acquainting myself with the modest James Gordon, 18th century seedsman and propagator extra-ordinaire.

    He was the first in England to grow Ginko biloba, or as it was then known, Salisburia adiantifolia.In 1754, a mere 250 years ago. A century later it was 55 feet tall.

    He was a competent and modest man. The lovely eloquent and knowledgeable plantsman Roy Lancaster says of him:
    "In today's world where modesty might be considered a handicap, it is a refreshing reminder that talent and achievement needs no trumpeting to earn respect and recognition"

    Hear, hear!

    But then, what do you care who grew what in the UK.

    BTW, what on earth is a skew ?
    Other than a miserable seedling.
    I have just been charged $26 dollars for 44 miserable little primroses on a tiny tray. They were called skews in the brochure and I fell for it.
    Do you guys send out plants and bulbs? They would arrive a whole lot quicker from the US than form
    Manchester to me. It has been almost five weeks and no sign of any bulbs. Now there is snow forecast and I feel dejected about my big plans. Five empty clean beds, and nothing to fill them with. Groan.

  3. I love the shape of the leaves on these trees.

  4. Hi, Les--I love Ginko trees, and your photos of those yellow leaves are fabulous. So, do you know what part of the tree they use in vitamins (or supplements or whatever the proper term is). I hope you have a wonderful holiday--we're down in Duck, where it's cold and clear and beautiful.

  5. The ginkgos are the most wonderful trees. So lovely. I have seen a few JUST this year and am in love too. That is a poignant story about them resprouting in Hiroshima.

  6. I grew up with a huge one in my front yard! The leaves are slick and make a great skating surface for kids and sidewalks! :) We probably had the largest one in town! There are a lot of them here in old downtown Augusta and I think one with some historical significance. I must check it out again…

  7. Beautiful pictures. It's a shame the tree got butchered for utility lines.

  8. Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family!

  9. They are beautiful trees. Our town has been planting a lot of them. I don't have one in my garden but I wish I did.

  10. Jim,
    Good to hear from you. Your leg was being pulled or someone was confused. It is the females that produce the fruit. The outer flesh contains a compound that can also be found in various decomposing materials. The nut on the inside is valued in Asia as a treat.

    Thanks for the info on James Gordon and the Lancaster quote is indeed valid, I only wish more believed it. I DO CARE who grew what in the UK. To many gardeners here, the UK is the horticultural mother ship. We envy your climate, admire your country's wide devotion to gardening and your garden centres (I spelled "centre" your way) are models for the rest of the world. Unless of course they are charging you $26 for 44 miserable little primroses.

    The shape is one of the things I find fascinating about Ginkgo, it is unique.

    I think people make a tea from the foliage to get the health benefits, although I just heard somewhere that some of the claims have been rebuked. Anytime of year is good to be on the Outer Banks, especially fall. Though I do prefer earlier in the fall when the crowds just left, but the water is still warm enough to swim.

    I seem to be able to pick Ginkgo out from a distant. My eyes are tuned to them. I liked them well enough before I heard the Hiroshima connection, but that sealed the deal.

    How lucky you were to have one around. I hope it was not a female. I did not realize that you were near Augusta. I have been there once or twice. Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours too.

    Sweet Bay,
    They may have been butchered, but it was more of a comestic problem for the tree than a health issue.

    Glad your town is planting them. They make great street trees.


  11. You wouldn't forget to invite the Taxodiaceae, would you? Disrespected, the Metasequoia would have hurt feelings. The Taxodium would turn mean.

  12. These are great trees, and one of the few to give us great fall color in the Gulf Coast area. There used to be several in downtown New Orleans before Katrina, and I am not sure if they survived.

    Always Growing

  13. I'm only familiar with this tree from books and blogs. I haven't seen any in Austin. Maybe it's too hot and dry here? What a gorgeous tree though.

    I can't help but wonder why, if they are as adaptable and hardy as you say, they don't still survive in the wild. Do you have any guesses?

  14. Stunning. Just the other week I was admiring two adult Gingkos in the Botanical garden and wondering which were more majestic, Ginkgos or Taxodiums. It didn't matter, you could just stand there in awe for hours. Loved your personal review and Ginkgo enchantment, esp. the story about the Hiroshima ones. Always a delight to learn sth new. Cheers!

  15. Had to come back and take another look at that beautiful house, with the golden curtain.

    BTW, from what I have been reading around the blogs these past few months, I cannot but conclude that US present garden expertise has firmly overtaken ours by now. Besides, so very many plants that we treasure over here turn out to have come from one State or another. Quite an eye opener.

  16. Chuck,
    Taxodium should have no hurt feelings, and I would point out that there are more than a few pictures and references to the species on my blog.

    I hope the Ginkgo trees survived. I had the fortune to spend three weeks in N.O., but I am not sure I would have noticed any other tree than the magnificent Live Oaks.

    I know that Ginkgo trees will grow there, and there are apparently several on the UTEX campus in Austin, and your state champion is in New Boston TX.

    Thanks for coming by. You were fortunate to be in a space that has both of those trees.

    I love the phrase "golden curtain", better than "iron" or "bamboo". I am not so sure about the state of international horticulture as to who has overtaken who. There is a running joke among hort. professionals about our native field weeds having to go to Europe for approval before we can put them in our gardens as choice perennials.


  17. You framed the the first couple very nicely. You are right, if you had come a day or two later the trees probably would have been bare. It looks like peak color.

  18. DFP,
    Thanks for the compliment, and thanks for stopping by.


  19. Les...

    Do you know the one on Grounds,
    between the Rotunda and the Chapel?
    Sitting under it, walking around it
    the week before Thanksgiving is
    always a religious experience--
    part of Thanksgiving for a lot of
    ginkophiles, actually.

    'Shimmering' always comes to mind, but really doesnt do it justice. Its glorious, truly


  20. Theo,
    You may be speaking of the Pratt Ginkgo, which was featured on the cover of the latest issue of the UVA Magazine. According to the article, it was the university's first memeorial tree and was planted just prior to the Civil War. I am going to check it out next time I am in C-Ville.

  21. I like gingkos too - but for some reason I've always had it in my head that they don't do well in strong winds (the whole hurricane thing).

    I'm also thinking back to my days in Virginia, when I spent that summer working at Monticello as a tour guide - I think that Jefferson brought the gingko into the US from Europe. I ned to check and see if I'm right about that though.

  22. Pam,
    I would try a Ginkgo in Charleston. I am sure it will grow there, and they are wind resistant. I do not know about Mr. Jefferson's, but I know have even more respect for you since you got to work there.


  23. Request - Book "Ginkgo biloba L. 1771 - All about ginkgo (or maidenhair tree)" Vol 1-3

    I live in Croatia (Europe) and write a book about ginkgo for print and net. Type of the book is: scientifically-popular.

    My question is:

    if you allow me to publish a photograph with your web site? Photograph is autumn color ginkgo tree in Smithfield, USA - or (some) other photographs of your choice?

    Photograph has been signed:

    "Beautiful autumn color leaves Ginkgo biloba tree in Smithfield, USA. Source: "The photos and data was published good deed Mr Les, Norfolk, Virginia, USA." (or your real name) - or how you want it?

    (+ "Special thanks"... )

    I send you the example of books in pdf - early 2011.

    View please “Contents” my new book "Ginkgo biloba L. 1771 - All about ginkgo (or maidenhair tree)" (Vol 1-3) here: or

    Many thanks in advance!

    And Happy New Year 2011.

    Big regards!

    B.M. Branko Begovic (Croatia)