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GINKGO THE LIVING FOSSIL TREE

written by
Marianne C. Ophardt
WSU Extension Faculty
for the Tri-City Herald, Kennewick, WA
published 9/20/13

One of the most interesting trees that can be grown locally is a ginkgo tree. It was called a “living fossil” by Darwin because it is basically the same tree found in fossils from over 200 million years ago when dinosaurs roamed the earth. Most other plants of that time were wiped out by drastic climate change and the ice age. The ginkgo tree that we know today, Ginkgo biloba, has survived over time with few evolutionary changes for at least 56 million years. How awesome!

The ginkgo tree grew in America until the ice age came along about seven million years ago. The only place in the world where Ginkgo biloba survived the ice age was in China, preserved possibly by Chinese monks in two areas and by natural geographic features in another area.

Scientists believe the ginkgo tree has been cultivated in China for 1,000 years, making its way out of China into Japan and Korea in the 14th or 15th century. In Asian cultures it is a revered symbol of strength and longevity. A member of the Dutch East India Company introduced the ginkgo to the West in 1692,

The ginkgo tree is unique. It has no close or distant relatives. The fan-shaped leaves are distinctly different from other trees with a notch at the top and raised parallel veins. The tree is dioecious, meaning that there are separate male and female trees, with only the female producing a small plum-shaped fruit… more about these distinctive fruit later.

Some gardeners like the ginkgo for its status as a living fossil. Others simply like it for its unique form and leaves. As a young tree, the ginkgo has a columnar growth habit, eventually spreading out and developing an irregular oval shape. A slow grower, it takes a long time to reach its full potential of 70 to 80 feet tall. In the fall, all the leaves of the ginkgo tree turn a brilliant yellow and flutter to the ground seemingly overnight.

Ginkgo grows best in well-drained moist, sandy soils, but is tolerant of a variety of stressful conditions including heat, drought, compacted or alkaline soil. It is a long-lived tree that is resistant to storm damage. Better yet, it has no significant pest or disease problems and is very winter hardy (USDA Hardiness Zone 3A).

Gingko has one objectionable drawback… the fruit. The nut inside the fleshy fruit is considered an Asian delicacy and served for special occasions. However, the fleshy part of the fruit stinks, many likening it to the smell of dog manure. It may take 20 years for a female ginkgo tree to produce fruit, but when it does the fruit can be prolific and smelly. Reputable nurseries only sell male ginkgos that do not produce fruit.

The are numerous named selections of ginkgo available including Autumn Gold that only grows 50 feet tall and has a broader, rounder crown, Jade Butterfly which is a slow growing dwarf half the size of the species, Pendula with a weeping habit, and Princeton Sentry with a narrower columnar form and growing 60 feet tall. I have a newer selection of ginkgo in my yard called Presidential Gold. It does grow slowly but I like how its leaves flutter in the slightest of breezes and its fleeting beautiful yellow color in fall. Watch for the ginkgos this fall as their leaves turn bright yellow.

OPTIONAL SIDEBAR: There is evidence that ginkgo and other tree species grew long ago in our region of Washington. Petrified wood of ginkgo and these other trees was discovered in 1927 by highway workers. The petrified wood is estimated to be over 15 million years old. This wood was excavated by a geologist and l in 1938 a park and a museum were established there. The area became a National Natural Landmark in 1965. Interested in seeing some of this ancient ginkgo wood? Near Vantage, the Ginkgo Wanapum Interpretive Center, the Ginkgo Petrified Forest State Park and Wanapum Trails area is only a 90 minute drive from the Tri-Cities.

Published: 9/20/2013 2:15 PM

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