Amanda McNulty

The long-lived ginkgo trees more than just leafy beauties

amcnult August 11, 2011 

I’ve spent this summer “wishing my life away;” a waste of days for someone who is 60. But it’s been so hot that all I can do is dream of fall and cooler times.

In the summer, fall is everyone’s favorite time of year. The mountain apples, the resurrection of dahlias, waking in the morning to the muffled sound of shotguns as dove season opens. And then there are those leaves.

Rather than a trip to New Hampshire, or even up the Blue Ridge Parkway, I delight in a drive on 601 toward Camden, where acres of blackjack and turkey oaks show their reflections of earth in the reds and browns of their sturdy leaves. The hickory I dug up (three feet of a rat tail root) on the farm and planted outside my bedroom window becomes the color of almost-burned butter. Some maples put on a fine display but it varies with each individual.

One thing you can count on, however, is that the ginkgos will be showstoppers. Overnight, the leaves assume a translucent clear yellow that acts like a prism in sunlight, reflecting those rays in an iridescent glow.

And showstopper is a good description, for like a great symphonic performance, Ginkgo’s glorious display builds to a climax and then is over, with the discarded leaves littering the ground. But like my longed-for autumn, they will surely come again.

These trees have been on earth for over 15 million years. In their heyday, many species abounded and petrified specimens are seen in Washington State, but now one, G. biloba, stands alone, and individuals may stand for a thousand years.

With no pests and remarkably tolerant of air pollution, they make a beautiful and long-lived street tree. The leaves are reminiscent of maidenhair fern foliage. Young trees have leaves with a vertical split; giving rise to the name biloba; older wood produces entire leaves.

Traditional geisha and sumo wrestling hairstyles imitate these leaf shapes, highlighting the connections between man and nature. Slowly growing to 80 by 60 feet, it needs considerable space. For restricted areas, Princeton Sentry keeps its circumference at a tidy 15 feet.

Curiously, these trees are classified as gymnosperms, or trees with naked seeds, the home of pines, cypress, hemlocks and more. Ginkgos and cedars, however, do not have a cone but rather fleshy material that covers the seeds. Angiosperms, the flowering plants, have fruits that develop from flower ovaries; structures absent in the gymnosperms.

Regardless of its botanical setting, the dioecious (separate male and female plants) gingkos are known for their “fruits,” as the females produce masses of cherry-like structures. Before you get excited let me add that they smell like a horror movie about a stomach virus decimating a kindergarten. For that reason, only male trees are offered in the trade.

In Asian cultures, people gather these fruits, wash them vigorously, and then toast them until the seed can be easily cracked to reveal a delicious internal kernel.

Ginkgos also are revered for their medicinal properties, and in Sumter we have the world’s largest ginkgo farm, Garnay, which uses modified cotton pickers to pluck leaves from dramatically pruned trees. Dried and baled, the leaves are sent to France for use in the pharmaceutical industry. I’ve been told that the truckers often ask to sit for a few moments in the storage rooms before resuming their travels, no doubt restored and refreshed.

Amanda McNulty is an associate extension agent for the Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service and is a co-host of “Making It Grow” broadcast weekly on ETV television stations. Website: www.clemson.edu/extension/hgic/

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