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

Newsletter

Build Your Own (Not So Big) Bugs at Upcoming Family Workshop

The clock is counting down the days that we get to enjoy David Roger’s Big Bugs exhibition at the Garden. The Bugs will fly, scuttle and hop away. on June 12. One way to enjoy the Bugs before they depart, plus create a keepsake of the exhibition, is to join our family workshop, Big Bug Builders.

Read More »
Garden sign that reads "As I work on the garden, the garden works on me"
Learn

Get Your Hands Dirty in a Garden to Boost Your Mental Health

One of the best things about working outside in a garden is the visibility of the results. You can see your hard work pay off as flowers bloom. But there’s another benefit, one that is just as real but less obvious to the eye: Gardening supports your mental health. Experts from the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service will teach a workshop on wellness in the garden this month that will share tips on reducing stress and anxiety through gardening.

Read More »
Blue plumbago - pale blue flowers against a dark green background of leaves
Garden

Plants that Take the Heat and Fill Your Summer Garden with Color

One of the major goals of gardening in Texas is finding colorful, high-performing plants that add drama to our summer landscapes and hold up to Texas heat. “Fortunately, there are many to choose from, including both perennials and annuals and both native and adapted plants,” says Sr. Horticulturist Steve Huddleston. “In fact, you might find you have more options that you realized.”

Read More »
Floral illustration from 1829 of stemless evening primrose
Newsletter

What Is This Thing? Discovering Stemless Evening Primrose.

It’s one thing to identify a flower when it’s in bloom. Petals, stamens and other features provide all sorts of information to botanists to narrow down the plant’s name and history. Starting with a seed pod is a different matter – especially when the pod is hard, dried, and an indistinct brown. When friends Carol and Cynthia both found particularly tough, dried pods that superficially resemble pine cones, they were baffled. But it takes more than a dried-up pod to baffle the botanists at the BRIT Herbarium. They were able to let Cynthia and Carol know that they had found the dried fruits of Oenothera triloba, or stemless evening primrose.

Read More »
Family enjoying picnic near Big Bugs ant
Engage

This Time, the Ants Invite You to the Picnic

Usually, ants at a picnic are unwelcome, but what if they’re the main attraction? The Botanic Garden is at the height of its early summer beauty, and we invite you to celebrate on the grounds with a picnic – perhaps near the giant, whimsical ants that are part of the David Rogers’ Big Bugs exhibition. “Now is a great time to dine al fresco at the Garden,” says CEO and President Patrick Newman. “Explore our landscape as late spring and summer blooms reach their peak, and visit sculptor David Rogers’ giant insects before the exhibition closes in June.”

Read More »
A hand pours tea from a Japanese teapot into small bowls
Engage

Restored Tea House Welcomes Guests to Experience the Way of Tea

Guests to the Spring Japanese Festival will have an opportunity to view the Japanese Garden’s Tea House, now open after a comprehensive restoration. Japanese garden expert John Powell drew on the Urasenke tradition, a centuries-old school of tea that emphasizes harmony, respect, purity and tranquility, to guide the restoration. “The Way of Tea is much more than a traditional way of serving guests a drink,” says Powell. “It is a rich tradition of hospitality that invites hosts and guests to respect one another and the world around them.”

Read More »