The Mystical, Magical Ginkgo Tree

by Pat Leners – March 1995

It seems that the ginkgo is fast becoming a popular subject with MBS members, for styling as individual trees as well as forests. At the Sept. 1993 meeting, Melba Tucker created a wonderful ginkgo forest, which surely must have inspired a lot of us. So perhaps it’s time for a collection of ginkgo facts culled from many sources, offered for your enjoyment and enlightenment.

Gingko image by by Andy Amundsen

We know from fossils the GINKGO BILOBA was growing at the same time as Tyrannosaurus Rex roamed the earth, in other words from the Jurassic period on. At one time it was native to what is now North America. For years the ginkgo was thought to be extinct but was rediscovered in China in the 1600’s, being cultivated by monks, having survived for 150 million years in the same form. The probable reason for this remarkable longevity is that ginkgo are almost disease-free and pest-free ( so they never need spraying!). This is a real low maintenance tree and as a bonus is very tolerant of pollution.

What I love most about my ginkgo bonsai are the beautiful leaves, a light fresh green in spring and summer, followed by a fantastic show of gold in the fall, hence one of its many nicknames: Tree of a Thousand Coins. It is also referred to as the Maidenhair Tree, because the leaf shape is like the leaf of the maidenhair fern. The beautiful, unique leaf also gives the plant the second half of its name, Biloba – divided into two lobes. The leaves on the male and female trees look slightly different. Usually, you would choose male trees for use as bonsai, because the fruit produced by the female tree is not very attractive and they smell just like baby vomit when crushed. However, it’s many years before fruit is produced, so it’s not a real big problem.

Although it would be beyond the scope of bonsai practice, we should note that this ancient healing tree is being used in ongoing medical research in the treatment of vascular disorders, memory loss, and the effects of aging. Ginkgo are perfectly hardy in the Twin Cities, growing as boulevard trees or park specimens. However, once in a bonsai pot, you will want to protect them in the winter because of their fleshy roots. The ginkgo has a soft bark, easily damaged, so wiring should be kept at a minimum and checked often during the growing season. Repotting is done in early spring before the tree s begin to grow, when buds are just swelling. They should be repotted at least every two years, because they produce a lot of roots. Soil for ginkgo should be well- draining. Ginkgo leaves can’t be reduced in size by pinching off and growing new ones, as we do with maples, etc. The best way to keep the leaves small is to give the tree lots of sun in the spring when leaves are forming and keep watering to a minimum.