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Gardening 101: Ginkgo Trees

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Gardening 101: Ginkgo Trees

November 21, 2018

Ginkgo Tree, Ginkgo biloba

We can thank a wealthy 18th-century plant collector named William Hamilton for bringing the first ginkgo trees to the United States.

After a tour of grand European gardens in the 1780s, Hamilton had three ginkgo trees shipped across the ocean to Philadelphia, where he planted two on his vast 300-acre estate. The third Ginkgo biloba tree, which he gave to his friend the naturalist William Bartram, is the only one to survive into the 21st century. (You can visit this magnificent tree at Bartram’s Garden the next time you are in Philadelphia—take the No. 36 trolley).

What was it about the ginkgo—a tree that grows wild only in two small areas of central China—that captivated William Hamilton the first time he saw one? Perhaps it was the ginkgo’s beautiful fan-shaped leaf, which is like no other in the world. Maybe he discovered the ginkgo in autumn, when its foliage turns a bright, golden color that looks like sunshine turned solid. Or maybe he fell under the spell of the graceful, spreading canopy of a fully mature tree. (Ginkgoes, which live for upwards of 1,000 years, can have a long, gangly adolescence.)

In any case, good call, Mr. Hamilton. In modern times, the amiable ginkgo has become a common (and welcome) street tree throughout the United States. Prized for its adaptability to less-than-perfect growing conditions, the ginkgo will thrive even in polluted air, compacted soil, and windy locations.

Is ginkgo the right tree for your garden? Read on to learn more about the pros and cons of this hardy deciduous tree:

Above: The oldest living ginkgo tree in the United States is in Bartram’s Garden in Philadelphia. To visit it, see Hours and information about the garden, which is open to the public 365 days a year.

Ginkgo trees will thrive in USDA Zones 3 to 9 (which includes most of the United States). While there is only one species in the genus, there are many cultivars including ‘Kew’ (so named because its origins can be traced to Kew Gardens in England) and ‘Autumn Gold’, which has the distinction of being the first cultivar distributed to nurseries (introduced in 1955 by California’s Saratoga Horticultural Foundation).

Left to its own devices in the open air, a mature ginkgo tree will grow higher than \100 feet. But this versatile tree also is happy as a bonsai. Photograph by Jerry Norbury via Flickr.
Above: Left to its own devices in the open air, a mature ginkgo tree will grow higher than 100 feet. But this versatile tree also is happy as a bonsai. Photograph by Jerry Norbury via Flickr.
Photograph by Rudolf Schäfer via Flickr.
Above: Photograph by Rudolf Schäfer via Flickr.

Ginkgoes leaf out in springtime with knobs of foliage that look like heads of lettuce before they unfold to become in frilly. In autumn, ginkgoes are known for their propensity to lose all their leaves in a single day because of the nature of the stems on their leaves. The stems, which are known as petioles, form a protective layer and drop as temperatures dip. On some trees, the formation is staggered, with the leaves that are most exposed to the elements falling first. But on ginkgo trees, the petioles tend to develop protective layers all at once—and to drop all at once on the occasion of a hard frost.

Cheat Sheet

Photograph by Rudolf Schäfer via Flickr.
Above: Photograph by Rudolf Schäfer via Flickr.
  • In a small garden, the best use of a ginkgo tree is as a specimen tree; make it a focal point of the landscape and give it plenty of room to grow. At maturity, a ginkgo will reach a height of from 80 to 100 feet with a 60-foot spread.
  • Ginkgo trees are either male or female; the female trees produce fruits that have a strong, unpleasant odor when they drop. (Some people describe the smell as “vomit-like.”) To avoid this, plant a male tree.
  • A ginkgo tree’s trunk has handsome gray bark which becomes ridged and textured with age.
&#8\2\20;The reason the yellow leaves are just as often associated with the tree pits of Brooklyn is that the ginkgo is pollution-tolerant and is able to grow in cramped conditions,&#8\2\2\1; writes our UK contributor Kendra Wilson. Ginkgo biloba by Keriluamox via Flickr.
Above: “The reason the yellow leaves are just as often associated with the tree pits of Brooklyn is that the ginkgo is pollution-tolerant and is able to grow in cramped conditions,” writes our UK contributor Kendra Wilson. Ginkgo biloba by Keriluamox via Flickr.

Keep It Alive

  • Ginkgoes will grow best in full sun but will tolerate partial shade (and at maturity will be graceful shade trees).
  • With no known disease or pest susceptibility, Ginkgo biloba is a hardy tree you won’t have to worry about.
  • Spring is the best season to plant a ginkgo tree.
Photograph by Mrhayata via Flickr.
Above: Photograph by Mrhayata via Flickr.

Read more growing tips at Ginkgo Trees: A Field Guide to Planting, Care & Design in our curated Garden Design 101 guides to Trees 101. See more of our favorite ginkgoes and other specimen trees:

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