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Plants from the Ground Up

Ginkgo biloba—The Magnificent Maidenhair Tree

I am amazed by the history of Ginkgo trees. They are often called ‘living fossils’ as Ginkgo biloba is one of the oldest trees on earth. Ginkgo biloba are the sole surviving species of a group of trees that date back to the dinosaurs and beyond. Fossil records depicting multiple Ginkgo species appearing on many continents date back to the early Jurassic period. By the end of the Pliocene period, fossils only appear in central China. It is interesting to note that although these trees do not look anything like a typical conifer they are in fact a deciduous conifer (a gymnosperm). Ginkgo trees developed in the era of ferns and cycads, before flowering plants (angiosperms) arrived on the scene. Another fascinating turn in the story of the Ginkgo biloba history is the fact that it was also once considered extinct. The first time a westerner encountered a Ginkgo was in 1691 in Japan, it had persisted there in temple gardens. There are no known trees existing in the wild, though it is a widely cultivated tree.


Ginkgo biloba ‘Autumn Gold’


The Ginkgo tree is perhaps best known for its amazing display of buttery-yellow fall leaves. Once the leaves drop they persist for some time on the ground as a lovey golden carpet. My favorite season for Ginkgo is spring when the leaves first emerge. They look to me like tiny scrolls that are about to unfurl. The common name of Maidenhair tree is a reference to the foliage looking a bit like the Maidenhair fern (Adiantum). The botanical name of biloba refers to the distinctive two-lobed, fan-shaped leaves.

Ginkgo trees can reach up to 100 feet, however there are many cultivars available that are much smaller. They are a fairly slow growing tree. Though they have a preference for moist yet well-drained situations, they are tolerant of a very wide range of conditions. Ginkgo can take acidic to alkaline soils, clay, salt, air pollution, heat and they resist deer! These trees are well adapted to urban conditions.

Ginkgo trees are dioecious, requiring a male and female tree to produce fruit. Most cultivars in commerce are male as the fruit that female trees produce has a husk that is unpleasant smelling. It is sometimes described as rancid butter or really stinky cheese. Ginkgo trees have long been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine to treat circulatory problems and memory loss. They are currently being used as a herbal remedy to treat a myriad of conditions from altitude sickness to cancer. Many scientific studies are being conducted to confirm these benefits.


Ginkgo trees are winter hardy to USDA zone 4. Some of the most popular cultivars include:


‘Autumn Gold’

This fine male selections reaches 40-50 feet and it is said to have some of the boldest autumn color.

Ginkgo biloba ‘Autumn Gold’ - fall color

Ginkgo biloba ‘Autumn Gold’ – fall color



A columnar male form, this cultivar reaches 50-60 feet tall while only spreading out to roughly 30 feet.

Ginkgo biloba ‘Magyar’

Ginkgo biloba ‘Magyar’


‘Salem Lady’

This is a fruit producing female for those who are willing to tolerate cleaning off the smelly husks to get at those delicious nuts!

Ginkgo biloba ‘Salem Lady’

Ginkgo biloba ‘Salem Lady’



A much more compact male reaching only 25-40 feet. The leaves on this tree are very attractive with their deep cuts that are known as ‘fish-tails’.

Ginkgo biloba ‘Saratoga’

Ginkgo biloba ‘Saratoga’



As the name suggests, this tree will produce fruit all by itself!

Ginkgo biloba ‘Self-fertile’

Ginkgo biloba ‘Self-fertile’


‘Snow Cloud’

An elegant and beautiful 10 foot dwarf with creamy-white variegation on the foliage.

Ginkgo biloba ‘Snow Cloud’

Ginkgo biloba ‘Snow Cloud’


Eating Ginkgo nuts!

Our local grocery store just started to carry (cleaned!) ginkgo nuts. The entire store probably heard my delight in this discovery. If you want to experiment with eating Ginkgo nuts here are a few tips. There are neighborhoods that do have female trees planted and you can collect the nuts in fall when the husks turn a soft-orange color. If you do collect the nuts, wear gloves since the husks have a compound that can cause a poison oak-like reaction in some people. Ginkgo nuts must be cooked, as they are slightly poisonous raw. They are also not recommended if you have allergies to cashews or mangoes. Once you have clean seeds, they can be simply roasted in a cast iron pan with oil and salt. When they are roasted the nut meat inside will turn from opaque yellow to translucent green. Crack the shells open and enjoy. The nuts are deliciously chewy with a slight bitter note. These are served in some bars in Japan with Sake. A word of warning, the more of them you eat the more you want!

Ginkgo biloba roasted nuts

Ginkgo biloba roasted nuts


Ginkgo biloba nuts raw


For more photos and information, see Ginkgo at the Forestfarm Store.

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