My Garden

The Lonely Ginkgo

A ginkgo tree showing new spring growth
A ginkgo tree showing new spring growth

I adore the Ginkgo biloba tree. The Maidenhair. 

Whenever I see one on the street, I find myself having to stop and take a look, to run my fingers down the strange, fan-shaped leaves. These leaves are quite distinct – and it gets it name from them. They spread out in two ‘lobes,’ with the veins radiating straight out from the leaf stalk. This isn’t a leaf with the networks you may be used to.

This tree also has no known relatives currently alive. 

It hasn’t had family in millions of years. First evolving somewhere around 290 million years ago, it has remained an astoundingly survivable tree since then. Most likely because everything that used to bother it has simply died off – it’s outlasted its enemies and the changing of the environment. It first appeared before the dinosaurs walked the earth, and stayed on after they were finished.

270 million years ago, there were a greater number of these trees, and a greater variety of its relatives. More species existed in its now-lonely division, Ginkgophyta, and its class, Ginkgoopsida. As the seasons changed and ice ages raged, its habitat slowly shrunk to what is now China.

It is capable of surviving nearly anything. Ginkgo shows many resistances to environmental stresses, quite possibly because it’s survived an earth that was warmer and less hospitable. It’ll drink down pollution, and even thrive on it. Tests on traffic intersection Ginkgo trees show five times higher sulfur content than on wild and free Ginkgo – but also that this amount of sulfur didn’t damage it. (On the other hand, testing of pine needles showed only a 2:1 sulfur difference from the city to the wild, and noticeable damage – the conifers couldn’t absorb as much sulfur as the Ginkgo, and were hurt more by what they took in).

Its leaves, roots, and wood are poisonous to most insects, and its roots only need worry about voles. It rarely needs water once mature, and only needs a stiff breeze to pollinate other Ginkgo. 

It’s the perfect tree for what our (potentially bee-less) environment might become. 

Unfortunately, it is also endangered.

The Ginkgo is currently most threatened not by disease or the environment, but by logging. Our homes are our own environments. We get a say at what survives, and can even help plants thrive that otherwise might be disappearing.

My First Ginkgo

My little Ginkgo has brought me so much joy, and more than a little fear. 

It had been shipped to me in the dead of winter, as a Christmas gift last year. It was meant to be shipped upright, but arrived on its side. Immediately, I was a little concerned. It had spent the better part of a week in a dark, airless box, possibly on its side, roots wriggling free, resting its weight uncomfortably on its branches. I fixed the dirt up as best I could – it was still moist, which certainly eased my worries. 

Then, in a rush lasting only 2 days, all its leaves turned yellow and fell off. I was devastated. I lost sleep, staying up late to see if some strange draft was coming in, checking the moisture in the soil over and over. Ultimately, I learned about the scratch test, and it was the only thing that alleviated my fears. 

As it turned out, the tree was hibernating. The shift from one coast to another, the sudden change in climate, and the timing must have all worked perfectly to tell the tree to go to sleep for a little bit. Months later, I had the wonderful joy of seeing the leaves suddenly spring forth from the little green buds all over the branches. 

Most recently, starting just a few weeks ago, it’s begun losing all its leaves. This time, I’m not as scared. Okay, I’m still a little scared – it’s such a happy little tree when it’s green. 

My happy little ginkgo after its first winter on the west coast.
My happy little Ginkgo in spring
A Ginkgo tree nearing the end of its hibernation. Look for the green buds to see where the new leaves will first sprout.
A Ginkgo nearing the end of its hibernation
How to care for your Ginkgo Biloba
How to care for your Ginkgo Biloba

Scratch Test

The scratch test – use your thumbnail to peel back a little bit of the outermost layer of bark. Do this towards the end of one of the new branches (and since mine was just a foot and a half tall, I figured they were all new). Avoid the very end, where the growing bud at the end of the branch sits. You only need to peel back a thin sliver, a small portion just an inch long or less. 

If you see a healthy layer of green underneath, then the tree is still alive. 

If it’s dry, if it looks dead – bad news. 

Doing this does harm the tree a bit. You’re scratching the skin off a young plant, after all. Only do this if you’re really worried. 

A ginkgo branch growing a new section after waking up from hibernation. The old end of the branch can be seen where the new extension grows from.
A ginkgo stretching its arms
A mix of very new leaves and some a few weeks old. The newest leaves are hydrophobic.
A mix of new and very new Ginkgo leaves
Watering the Ginkgo Biloba
Watering the Ginkgo Biloba

Home Care

If you’d like to help the ginkgo thrive, growing them at home is easy enough – 

Get the seed and get it ready:

Female Ginkgo trees produce seeds, while male Ginkgos perform the pollination. All they need is wind, so plant any female Ginkgo trees downwind of the male trees to make sure the wind actually helps. 

Harvesting seeds is best done in November or December. Peel the skin off and wash the seed underneath. Be careful, because the flesh on the seed does have a strong (and not always pleasant) smell. Keep them in the fridge for a couple months. 

To get the seeds ready to plant, wait until February. Moisten the seeds for a few days, then plant them in a good seed starting strata. Keep them in the fridge, and keep the media moist. Peat and sand is a good mix, as are some microgreen growing pads or similar material. Check for fungus regularly. 

After a month of so of bed-rest in the fridge, the seeds are ready to get into some real dirt. The starting pot doesn’t need to be large – maybe a milk jug, a liter or two. Use some regular garden soil or something with enough organic content that will keep the seedling humid. Make sure to put some rocks at the bottom, to help with drainage. 

Before too long, you’ll have a nice little seedling.

Once you’ve got your seedling going, care is pretty straightforward. For the first few months, the tree won’t have any bark. It’ll also want a good amount of light. Keep it in a sunny window (remember to rotate it every few days), and water it occasionally to keep the soil humid. It’s no cactus, mind you, but it’s not as thirsty as some plants can be. 

If you plan on keeping it inside for a while, repotting when the seedling has wooded is a good time. Move it up to a bigger pot to give it room to grow and prevent it from becoming root-bound (I’m using a wooden pot that’s only about a foot across and a foot tall. Realistically, I should probably move it up to a bigger pot some time soon). 

If you instead want to move it outside, wait a couple extra months for the seedling to harden off. Try to set the seedling in the ground at the same depth as it was in the pot, to keep the root neck at the same level. Set it in a place with some partial shade – under thin branches, or near tall grass. Water the planted spot every day for the first week to help the seedling along. After that, treat it more like a normal little tree. 

It’ll typically hibernate in winter, shedding all its leaves and drinking much less water. Once the weather warms up a bit and the days are a bit longer, it’ll wake up in a hurry. The new leaves will sprout out quite rapidly, and the branches will start growing just as soon. Where the tree rests each winter, a ring will form on each branch. As the years press on, you’ll be able to look down the length of the branch and see how much your tree grew each year.

The new leaves are hydrophobic, especially early in the year. Sprinkle some water from up above, and you can see the droplets bounce right off. Make sure to water around the base of the tree instead, so you aren’t just splashing water all over the floor and away from the roots.

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