The Ginkgo biloba tree, sometimes called the maidenhair tree, is one of the most recognizable trees because of its uniquely shaped leaf. It also has a very interesting story.
The tree was grown in ancient temple gardens in China and is believed to have been around for millions of years.
Ginkgos were unknown to the Western world until the 1700s. The Ginkgo biloba is the only surviving species of the ancient ginkgo family once thought to be extinct until two small populations were found in China, making it possible for people to enjoy the beautiful tree today.
Only the male tree is sold and planted, because the female ginkgo tree produces butyric acid, which gives off a rancid odor. The trees grow quite large, 50 to 80 feet, and may live thousands of years. They have a pyramidal shape and single straight trunks.
They are resistant to heat, pests, air pollution, wind and salt, making the ginkgo a great tree to plant in urban areas and along streets. Even though the tree is ideal for our climate conditions, the ginkgo is not native to Illinois and will not be found growing in the wild.
My favorite part of ginkgo trees is the leaves. They are light green and fan-shaped, resembling a maidenhair fern, thus the common name given the tree. The leaves turn bright yellow in fall, creating a nice contrast to our red maples. One highly interesting characteristic is that the leaves all drop at the same time in the fall, creating a beautiful golden carpet around the tree.
If you are thinking about planting a tree, consider the unique ginkgo tree. The cultivars recommended by the University of Illinois Extension include Autumn Gold, Fairmount and Princeton Sentry.
If you are just interested in viewing them, the Morton Arboretum in Lisle has 77 specimens on the grounds, as the ginkgo was a favorite tree of the founder.
Darlie Simerson is a master gardener for the University of Illinois Extension serving DuPage, Kane and Kendall counties. Call the extension office at 630-584-6166 for more information.