Ginkgo – a Unique Tree with a Long History

The famous, 124-year-old Hubbard Ginkgo at Tyler City Hall.

The famous, 124-year-old Hubbard Ginkgo at Tyler City Hall.

Tyler, famous for roses and azaleas, has another plant that attracts attention from fans of Texas trees. On the grounds of the Tyler City Hall stands a living monument to the ice ages and to the city’s early history. On the southeastern lawn lives an old, large Ginkgo tree, brought to us by one of Smith County’s famous residents.

This tree is now known as the Hubbard Ginkgo since it was a former Texas governor and ambassador to Japan, Richard Bennett Hubbard of Lindale, who brought this tree back from Japan as a sapling in 1889. Hubbard gave one of two Ginkgo trees to a close friend, Colonel John H. Brown of Tyler who planted it on his property. The Brown property was later purchased by the city of Tyler where the new city hall was built in 1939.

Now 124 years old, this tree has withstood the test of time. In the 60’s, a lightning strike opened a wound down the side of this tree. The tree survived and is still in relatively good shape, though somewhat crowded by neighboring trees.

 

Bright, canary-yellow foliage typical of ginkgo fall color.

Bright, canary-yellow foliage typical of ginkgo fall color.

Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) is truly a living fossil, dating back to the Jurassic period. It is the only member of the Ginkgoaceae, a once large family of plants which became extinct long ago. Ginkgo biloba is not closely related to any living family or group in the plant kingdom. The fossil record shows it was once distributed over much of the world, along with their contemporaries – the dinosaurs. Ginkgoes are extinct from the wild and now known only as a landscape tree.  It is speculated that Ginkgoes became extinct in North America, Europe and western Siberia due to glaciers, but survived in Asia in the milder climate.

Ginkgoes have long been cultivated in the Orient where it is highly esteemed not only as a landscape plant, but also for the nuts and for the medicinal properties of its leaves. Ginkgoes were introduced to Europe in 1730 and in the United States in 1784.

From a landscape point of view, the Ginkgo is a wonderful tree. It is attractive, long lived (a tree planted at Kew Gardens in England in 1750 is still alive), rather slow growing, especially for the first years after it is planted, and not readily subject to attacks by insects or diseases. That makes sense since it has survived virtually unchanged for thousands of years.

Unique fan-shaped leaves of the Maidenhair Tree.

Unique fan-shaped leaves of the Maidenhair Tree.

Ginkgo leaves are uniquely shaped like a fan with a cleft down the middle, much like a maidenhair fern leaf from which it gets its other common name – the Maidenhair Tree. These green leaves turn bright canary yellow in late fall, and it is at this time that you can easily spot any Ginkgo tree in the neighborhood. Ginkgoes hold their leaves well into fall and usually drop them all at once.

'Princeton Sentry' ginkgoes line a walkway leading up to the Ina Brundrett Azalea Garden at Tyler Jr. College.

‘Princeton Sentry’ ginkgoes line a walkway leading up to the Ina Brundrett Azalea Garden at Tyler Jr. College.

Several years ago, 14  Ginkgo ‘Princeton Sentry’ trees were planted in two rows on the Tyler Jr. College campus between Jenkins Hall and Wise Cultural Arts, leading up to the Ina Brundrett Azalea Garden near the ‘duck pond’.  These trees probably will, in time, become a landmark in Tyler.

Ginkgos are dioecious, meaning a tree is either a male or female. Female Ginkgoes bear yellow-orange, plum-like fruit with a thin layer of flesh covering an oval, silver/white nut. Fallen fruit give of an extremely putrid, offensive smell, so avoid buying female or seedling trees by purchasing grafted male trees. The nuts, though, are considered quite a delicacy and are consumed in banquets, weddings and other social gatherings in the orient. The word “Ginkgo” comes from the Chinese word for silver fruit or nut. The Ginkgo is the oldest cultivated nut tree.

Ginkgoes are slow-growing (1 to 3 feet/year) but long-lived, pest-free trees. They are tolerant of a variety of soil conditions, but will grow best in well-drained, loamy soil in a full sun location. They can grow 50 to 80 feet tall with a 30 to 40 foot spread, so give them plenty of room to grow.  There are many forms of growth habit of this tree.

There are several cultivars in the trade, but you might have difficulty finding some of them.  A few of the more popular varieties are: ‘Autumn Gold’ – good color, male; ‘Pendula’ – weeping branches, male; ‘Princeton Gold’ – upright to spreading form, male; ‘Princeton Sentry’ – columnar, male.

To create your own Jurrasic Park in your yard, consider a living relic of the past – the durable and attractive Ginkgo.

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