Ginkgo biloba leaves in autumn

For Brilliant Fall Color, Look to the Living Fossil, Ginkgo

Every autumn, guests to the Japanese Garden frequently stop and marvel at a magnificent tree located just inside the east entrance. In the fall, the leaves turn bright lemon yellow. The color is so brilliant the leaves almost appear fluorescent, as if a bundle of yellow highlighters had taken root and sprouted.

This is one of the Garden’s Ginkgo biloba trees, and it holds a remarkable story. “If you are looking for a tree to add to your landscape, consider the gingko. It is not only a reliable performer and beautiful tree but also a unique horticultural specimen,” says Sr. Horticulturist Steve Huddleston.

The first trees in the genus Ginkgo appeared about 170 million years ago, and at one time the trees were found all around the globe. Dinosaurs once roamed through ginkgo forests. Over time, new types of trees evolved—the ancestors of today’s oaks and maples—and began elbowing out the ginkgo. The tree survived the mass extinction that killed the dinosaurs, but by the time the last ice age ended about 11,000 years ago, only one species of ginkgo remained in isolated locations in China. Ginkgo trees are sometimes described as “living fossils” because the plants have remained essentially unchanged since earlier geologic times and their closest relatives are extinct.

The tree was saved from extinction by human beings, who thought the seeds of the tree were tasty. They began cultivating the tree and using its seeds, leaves and bark in traditional medicines. In the seventeenth century, a German naturalist brought the ginkgo tree to Europe; from there, it was brought to North America. Today it is one of the most common trees on the East Coast.

The tree also thrives in Texas, and locals should keep it in mind when looking for an addition to their yard. Ginkgos can reach 80 to 100 feet tall, with an oval to upright spreading growth habit at maturity. They’re usually slow to moderate growers. 

“The most striking characteristic of the tree is its two- to four-inch-wide, fan-shaped leaves on stalks up to three inches long.  This shape and the elongated stalks cause the foliage to flutter in the slightest breeze,” says Huddleston. “Leaves are medium green, and fall color among many cultivars is a brilliant, buttery-yellow.”

Ginkgo biloba leaves in the autumn.

Some gardeners are hesitant to plant ginkgos because they have heard they smell. Ginkgos are dioecious, which means some trees are males and some females. Female ginkgos produce fruits with a scent that some people describe as that of “rancid butter” and others as much worse. Homeowners can avoid the stink factor by planting male trees. Fortunately, male trees are easy to obtain. All modern cultivars available from nurseries are male trees grafted onto seedling rootstock.

Ginkgos prefer full sun and deep, moist, sandy soils, but they will adapt to a wide range of soils and conditions. The tree is virtually free of disease and insect problems.

“November is a great time to plant trees in our climate. They have a chance to get established before the heat of the summer,” says Huddleston. “If you are planning to add a tree, give some thought to ginkgo. You’ll have a beautiful tree with an amazing story.”

Related Articles

Goache painting of a Lemon by Olivia Garcia-Hassell
Learn

Explore Gouache for a More Creative New Year

Artistic creation can lighten your spirit and restore your soul. It’s easy to forget this truth in the hustle and bustle of every day life, but it’s worth remembering and exploring. If you’re looking to be a more centered, whole and creative person in 2023, consider trying Creative Art with Olivia.

Read More »
Orange blooms on a begonia against dark green leaves
Garden

Begonias Brighten January Days with Winter Blooms and Amazing Variety

Midwinter is a quiet time outside in the Garden, with most plants dormant until the days grow longer. But in the greenhouses devoted to the Garden’s Begonia Collection, excitement is growing as these remarkable plants get ready to bloom. Learn more about the incredible variety of begonias and get started growing your own.

Read More »
Dog Days
Engage

Dog Days Returns in 2023 for More Tail Wags and Nose Boops

Dog Days was introduced in 2022 and has been a howling success for canine fur babies and their human companions. This year, the Garden is expanding the program to one weekend a month, allowing pooches and their favorite people more opportunities to frolic on the grounds.

Read More »
Newsletter

Herbarium Reaches Transcription Milestone with 52,000-plus Specimens Fully Digitized

The herbarium is the heart of research at the Garden. A major priority of the herbarium is to digitize the collection by photographing the specimens and transcribing the related information recorded by botanists. Staff and volunteers made significant strides in reaching this goal last year. “The herbarium ended 2022 with complete transcriptions of 52,674 specimens,” says Herbarium Collections Manager Ashley Bordelon.

Read More »
Newsletter

FWBG Experts and Volunteers Digitize Records of Renowned Botanist in Cutting-Edge Project

Botanist Sherwin Carlquist (1930-2021) was a legend in his field, a prolific researcher who made major contributions to plant systematics, plant anatomy, island biology and wood anatomy. He traveled the world collecting plant specimens, photographing plants in the field and collecting data about ecosystems. Hard work by our experts and volunteers means scientists interested in studying Carlquist’s work will soon have a new type of digital resource giving them unprecedented context for his findings: an extended specimen network. Assuming, that is, that they can decipher Carlquist’s handwriting. 

Read More »