The Midas Touch

Whether the day begins overcast or not, golden sunbeams have flooded our bedroom each morning for the past week. Two male ginkgo trees (Ginkgo biloba) dominate the small pond garden just feet from our window and their fan-shaped leaves take on an luminous golden glow, a fall color second to none. We have watched for weeks as the bright green leaves began their fall journey turning faintly yellow at the tips, green slowly fading, and being replaced by more and more yellow. Many leaf-peepers and shutterbugs are awed by lemony ginkgo tree in fall landscapes, remarking that the color is too short-lived, the leaves all dropping within 24 hours. But we have developed a relationship with our ginkgos, watching the fall arrive slowly, reaching a crescendo of color lasting almost a week before it paints the ground, deck and pond in melted butter within a couple of days. Click photos to enlarge.

Another name for the ginkgo, this living fossil unchanged for 150 million years, is the Maidenhair tree,  some believe a name given to describe the parallel veins that fan outward like a maiden’s hair, but the resemblance to the pinnae of the Adiantum capillus-veneris or Maidenhair fern in fact gives the tree this nickname.  The species name, biloba, describes the split in the middle of the leaf, hence two-lobed.

Our two males command this area of the landscape, giving us essential shade in the summer and glorious color in the fall… but we cannot forget our smaller female ginkgo that continues to produce her pungent fleshy seeds each fall in another area of the yard. We allow these abundant seeds to germinate and the small trees we dig and share with anyone who expresses a desire to grow a living fossil, sex undetermined for 20 – 30 years. Today, cultivars like ‘Autumn Gold’  are created through grafting, splicing the cuttings from males on rootstock grown from seed.  And sadly, the tree is red-listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) list of Threatened Species due to the preference for the male ginkgo trees in the landscape.

If you live near me in Gloucester VA, I’d love to save a baby for your garden. Plant it away from public areas, especially sidewalks, just in case in 30 years, ‘he’ turns out to be a ‘she.’

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

A Living Fossil Goes to Seed

Ginkgo biloba seedsI saw a photo of Queen Elizabeth last month, dressed in pink with a matching pink hat, marking the 250th anniversary of the Royal Botanic Gardens by wielding a shovelful of dirt onto the base of a newly planted Ginkgo biloba tree.  In April, I read that Governor Schwarzenegger celebrated Earth Day by helping to plant a ginkgo tree in California.  These surviving relics date from the Permian period, over 270-300 million years ago, where the great forests of fern-like plants shifted to gymnosperms with offspring enclosed in seeds. The ginkgo actually predates the Age of Dinosaurs.

Two of these majestic trees, large and sturdy, grace the edge of my pond overlooking the river and a third, the runt, underdeveloped and frail, stands apart near the drive.  All three are approaching 40 years of age, mere babies for they can can live for a millennium.   When we first occupied this property, I fussed over the runt like a frail child.  Fertilizer. Water. Compost.  No response.  I eventually left it alone to grow ever so slowly until three years ago when I noticed unusual growths on the tree.  Those formations were the beginnings of seeds.  My runt had been a female all along and was finally fertilized by my robust males by the pond.  In her prime at age 36 she began to produce and drop marble-sized seeds. Dozens fall to the ground each summer and by spring, a large number of offshoots appear beneath her boughs.

Like rotting fruit under a tree, the ripe flesh around the seeds give off a pungent odor, a smell that suggests overripe cheese in my opinion.  Sadly, for this reason, the male is the preferred tree, an unfortunate fact that may impact future survival of the tree as it has made a plant endangered list.  I love my tiny ginkgo offspring and make them available for friends and neighbors who would like to adopt a baby… sex unknown for 30-plus years.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

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