Ginkgo biloba: A Bearer of Hope

By Fred Breglia

There is a gink­go tree here at Lan­dis, locat­ed on the right side of the dri­ve­way as you walk toward the Barn, just below the Van Love­land peren­ni­al bor­ders. Its leaves are dis­tinct­ly fan-shaped, with a split in the mid­dle that divides the leaf into two lobes. Hence, the genus name bilo­ba, which derives from the Latin bi” (two, or dou­ble) and loba” (leaf). The leaves are bright green dur­ing the sum­mer and often turn – all at once – a stun­ning yel­low in the fall.

The lin­eage of the gink­go tree makes the dinosaur look like a recent event. The Gink­go bilo­ba is the last liv­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the order Ginkgo­a­les, a group con­sist­ing of about 18 mem­bers that date back to the Tri­as­sic Peri­od, 300 – 350 mil­lion years ago – long before the Himalayas even exist­ed. Dur­ing this time, there were no trees on the earth’s sur­face oth­er than the gink­go. But there were many ferns – and this might be a clue to the ginkgo’s origins. 

Dur­ing the hey­day of the dinosaurs, the Juras­sic peri­od of around 213 mil­lion years ago, the gink­gos dom­i­nat­ed the earth. Dur­ing the Cre­ta­ceous Peri­od, 144 mil­lion years ago, per­haps as many as 15 gink­go species were com­mon and wide­spread in North Amer­i­ca, Europe, and Asia. These trees began to decline about 65 mil­lion years ago, pos­si­bly as a result of the extinc­tion of the dinosaurs who were impor­tant dis­persers of its large seeds. Due to geo­log­i­cal cat­a­clysms, only a sin­gle species remained, Gink­go diantoides, iden­ti­cal to the mod­ern Gink­go bilo­ba. Gink­gos, the old­est liv­ing seed plants on earth, are con­sid­ered to be one of the won­ders of the world. 

Like ferns and conifers, gink­gos are gym­nosperms that don’t pro­duce ripened fruit; their seeds are pro­tect­ed by a fleshy coat. The major­i­ty of gym­nosperms have both sex­es on the same plant, but the gink­go is dioe­cious, with sep­a­rate male and female trees. The flow­ers are incon­spic­u­ous, tak­ing about 20 to 30 years to appear. The female pro­duces numer­ous ovules that resem­ble cher­ries when formed. The males pro­duce pollen cones which resem­ble catkins. Pollen is dis­trib­uted by the wind. When the ovules are pol­li­nat­ed, they devel­op into yel­low­ish, plum-like seeds about an inch long, con­sist­ing of one large nut with­in a fleshy cover.

If con­sid­er­ing a gink­go for your yard, be advised it may live longer than 400 years. It’s usu­al­ly pyra­midi­cal shaped when young but spreads in old age, exhibit­ing large branch­es and a pic­turesque sil­hou­ette. Gink­gos are rel­a­tive­ly fast grow­ing, attain­ing a height of 100 feet and a spread of 30 – 40 feet. They pre­fer full sun to par­tial shade and moist, deep, well drained soils, but are extreme­ly adapt­able. They can sur­vive in poor, com­pact­ed soils, var­i­ous soil pHs, heat, drought, salt, and air pol­lu­tion. The female gink­go pro­duces a foul-smelling fruit so land­scap­ers rec­om­mend plant­i­ng only male plants. But despite the odor, the fruit con­tains an edi­ble nut used in Asian cooking. 

The ginkgo’s ancient begin­nings give it a unique advan­tage. It evolved before any leaf-eat­ing insect, so insects that muti­late the leaves of oth­er trees won’t touch a gink­go leaf. It is also resis­tant to dis­ease, fun­gi – and even radi­a­tion. On Sep­tem­ber 1945, after the atom­ic bomb was dropped on Hiroshi­ma on August 6th, trees and plants near the epi­cen­ter of the blast were exam­ined. A gink­go that grew near a tem­ple about 1,000 meters away from the epi­cen­ter appeared to be the only tree that sur­vived and was the first tree to bud out with­out any defor­mi­ties. That tree is alive today. Thus the gink­go is con­sid­ered to be a bear­er of hope.”

Summer 2020

Volume 38 , Number 2

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