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Ginkgo Trees - Ancient Trees Living in the Present

Updated on November 27, 2015
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I have a deep interest in nature, gardening and sustainability. The local arboretum is my universe of learning, and my garden is my lab!

Unique Leaf, Unique Tree

The ginkgo tree is one of the oldest trees on earth and is thought to have originated in China. These trees are an example of very successful genetic evolution. Ginkgos are a robust tree, with very few if any diseases and they live for centuries. However, just because they are so strong, doesn't mean we should not be stewards of their domain. What would we do if the ginkgos vanished? There is no limit to how long they can live if we are wise and do not destroy their environment. There are ginkgos that have been planted around Japanese and Chinese temples that are over 2000 years old. What foresight it took to plant these long lived trees when the temples were built. What an act of faith!

They can be found around the world in temperate zones and are not fussy about soil conditions, although they do like loamy soil (equal proportions of sand, clay and silt) and many times they are planted in cities to add an elegant touch of the Orient. The leaves are very uniquely shaped. They remind me of a fan with notches in it with fine lines etched onto the leaf body. When everything else in autumn is turning bronzey and scarlet, the ginkgo turns from its regular spring green or chartreuse to a lovely medium yellow gold, a very nice accent to the scarlets, burgundies and browns of the fall palette. I think of it as a punch of color in a very rich tapestry. Interestingly, young ginkgo leaves are more deeply notched than more mature leaves. They do grow into their notches eventually, though.

A silkscreen print of abstracted ginkgos converted to black and white.
A silkscreen print of abstracted ginkgos converted to black and white. | Source

How Tough is the Ginkgo?

Ginkgo trees are in the ginkoaceae family of plants and have been in existence at least two hundred million years. Yes, they are older than the dinosaurs. These trees have amazing regenerative powers. A case in point is that when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima during WWII, the mighty ginkgo tree was the first tree to show life again. No, the leaves weren't glowing, they were perfectly beautiful in their spring green finery. I don't know how long it took for the first little green fans to show up, but they did. How amazing is that? Sprouting after the bomb was dropped is either a testament to the resilience of nature or the will of God. Maybe a little of both?

The tree's ability to thrive in dire situations may have given researchers the idea that ginkgo biloba could be a life extender, although traditional Chinese medicine has known this for the past two thousand years. Maybe ginkgo improves memory for one simple reason; ginkgos never forgot how to regenerate themselves even after the bomb was dropped. Some interesting medicinal facts about ginkgo biloba include:

  • Improves memory in Alzheimer's patients because of improved blood circulation.
  • Foods or plants that are high in antioxidants such as the ginkgo tree will help to protect your teeny, tiny capillaries and keep them high functioning. In my humble totally non-medical opinion, I think the healthier and clearer your circulation is, the better your mind and body work. Everything works in tandem.

A Beautiful, Simple Design

The next time you're walking on a city street and you spot a ginkgo, take a moment and really look at the leaves. There are slight variations in them, but the new leaves are tiny little replicas of the mature leaves. I just find this very charming. In the spring, when they leaf out, they look like hundreds of tiny little delicate fans blowing in the breeze. They can be found on long or short stems and they can vary from widely fanned to more sharply triangular in shape. What a great tree!


Ginkgos in the Landscape - A Word of Caution

Although I love the look of ginkgos in the landscape, I am aware that they are not that great for birds. They host very few inspect species that our native birds enjoy, so they are not that useful to wildlife. Unless the food source insects evolve to be able to thrive in a ginkgo tree, this would not be a tree you would want to plant all over the place. Respect where you live and use non-native species of plants and trees with caution. Many times they have the capacity to crowd out other native species allowing a host of problems to occur.


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