Telling of trees: the Ginkgo

    This story starts like so many others: The first of its species in America came to Philadelphia, to the Woodlands estate of William Hamilton in 1784. European botanists had been fascinated by the legendary Ginkgo tree for centuries. Ginkgo fossils were common, yet wild populations seemed to have vanished. Plant explorers eventually found it growing in Chinese monasteries, where monks had been cultivating the tree since the 11th century.

    The Ginkgo, or Maidenhair tree, is often referred to as a “living fossil”. Its reproduction cycle is unique among trees, more akin to a fern or a cycad, other primitive plants that have clung to existence for hundreds of millions of years.

    Despite its near extinction, the Ginkgo is an incredibly tough tree. Maturing at about 60-80 feet, it is untroubled by disease, pollution, soil compaction, ice storms, or drought. Ginkgos were the only life of any kind to survive the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in 1945, and several trees located less than a mile from the bomb’s epicenter continue to grow.

    Of course, there is no such thing as a perfect plant. If you’ve ever walked under a female Gingko tree in the fall you know what I’m going to say next. The seeds of the female tree are contained within an attractive plum-like flesh. Unfortunately, when these plentiful fruits fall to the ground and are crushed underfoot, they emit a strong odor of combined vomit and fresh poop. And it’s slippery.

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    Which leads us back to the fate of that first American Ginkgo in what is now the Woodlands Cemetery (where a number of very old trees still exist.) A female, it grew and thrived until the 1980s, when a disgruntled caretaker cut it down. The caretaker’s dog had a habit of eating those stinky fruits, which didn’t agree with him.

    It’s awful to lose an important tree, especially senselessly, but there are still a number of venerable Ginkgos in Philadelphia (many of which are those fruiting females.) Virtually every Gingko sold commercially today is a male, so you can plant them with impunity; they make great street trees. If you’re cheap, or a risk taker, try propagating one from seed, which isn’t hard. But be forewarned- you won’t know the sex of the tree for about ten years.

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