The ancient Gingko is a dream come true in fall

We look at trees differently in autumn. Some that go unnoticed for the rest of the year suddenly draw attention to themselves in fall, causing curious nature watchers to ask, “What is that?”

Usually it’s a fiery orange or stunning vermillion canopy that draw admirers, but as homeowners tire of a seemingly never-ending trickle of falling leaves that require attention, one tree that starts to look especially good — Gingko biloba.

Many people probably don’t know a Gingko when they see it, they just know that one autumn day it was a glorious golden yellow and the next day every single yellow leaf was lying on the ground in the most magical carpet of color. It’s a particularly wonderful attribute for anyone who wishes their yard cleanup could be done in one weekend.

Unlike other deciduous trees, which form scars over time where leaves grow to protect the tree from disease, Gingko biloba forms these scars all at once and a hard frost triggers their leaves to fall at once.

It is particularly frustrating to me that I’ve never actually seen the leaves on our two Gingko trees fall. I’ve noticed them looking particularly lovely on a frosty morning and then, by the time I get back to them just hours later, every leaf is on the ground and I’ve missed the show.

Although the lure of easy cleanup is a valid reason for being attracted to Gingko biloba, it’s also worth growing to have a living fossil in your yard, a memento of a species that lived when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, alive at least 200 million years ago according to dating of Ginkgo leaf fossils.

With their small, distinctive fan-shaped leaves coupled with their leaf-dropping habits, it’s hard to imagine that anyone could find fault with the charming Gingko. But they do have one negative aspect that is so bad that the tree has landed on some people’s “never plant” lists. The fruit produced on mature female trees smells absolutely foul as it decays. I’ve never experienced it myself, but descriptions of the odor range from rotten butter to vomit and worse. Should you be able to harvest the fruit before it starts decaying, the nuts inside can be toasted and are considered a delicacy in Asia.

It takes three to four decades for a Gingko tree to mature, so most people won’t experience the stench on a tree they’ve planted, but the only way to know the sex of a Gingko is a DNA test. Luckily, most trees produced by nurseries are grown from cuttings of male trees, creating clones with a known sex.

That’s fortunate, because Gingko trees, which are not native to the Midwest, are very long-lived, probably because they’ve been developing effective defense mechanisms against predators and environmental stress for so long. The oldest recorded Gingko biloba was about 3,500 years old, which means that there’s a good chance you won’t have to replace one you plant in your yard.

And it will be a step toward simplifying cleaning up all those leaves in fall.


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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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Port Washington, WI 53074
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