Grow and enjoy a gingko biloba tree in Canada

August 14, 2017

by Susan Tellman

Do you know where ginkgo biloba comes from, other than in the herbal supplement tablets that people take to sharpen their memory? Actually, that extract comes from the leaves of an attractive and endangered tree – the gingko or maidenhair – that you can grow in many areas of Canada with a few key tips for careful selection for maximum enjoyment. [Image credit:]

Grow and enjoy a gingko biloba tree in Canada

The history of the gingko is fascinating and ancient. Native to China, today’s gingko tree is the only surviving species of the division Ginkgophyta, with fossils dating back about 270 million years. The ancestors of our gingko biloba lived before, during and after the time when dinosaurs roamed the earth! The species now growing in China, Korea, Japan, Europe and parts of North America has existed since the Eocene Epoch, 56 to 33.9 million years ago. Gingko trees have had a special place in Buddhist and Confucian temple gardens in China for centuries, with some individual trees still living for over 1,500 years.

Our attraction to gingko trees

  1. Long before being introduced to Europe in the late 1600s, gingko trees were valued in Asian cultures for the centres of their seeds, called gingko nuts, used in special dishes and eaten for health benefits. Extracts from its dried green leaves originated in Chinese medicine and are now a top-selling herbal supplement for their antioxidant and circulation-enhancing properties.
  2. Aesthetically, the gingko tree is unique because of its clusters of fan-shaped leaves. The leaves are light green until the autumn when they turn a bright golden yellow before falling. The tree has a narrow crown and a tapering trunk, giving it a graceful profile. These characteristics inspired British landscapers to dub the gingko biloba as the maidenhair tree since it resembles the maidenhair fern of England’s forests and gardens.
  3. To the benefit of Canadian landscapers and homeowners, the gingko tree is hardy to Zone 4 and requires little pruning and maintenance. It’s adaptable to a range of soil types and conditions though it prefers sandy, well-drained soil. This tree loves light and thrives in full sun but also adapts well to partly sunny locations. Your gingko tree will grow slowly but it can live for 1,000 years or more!
  4. The gingko tree also deals well with polluted city air, and has no known pests or diseases. It even has a moderate tolerance for de-icing salt often used on city sidewalks and streets. Toronto makes this species available in their street tree program and it is listed in the Toronto area maps of Canadian Tree Tours.

The problem with gingko trees and how to solve it

Hardy, beautiful and low-maintenance, why are gingko trees sometimes avoided by gardeners? Female gingko trees drop fruit in the autumn that ripens on the ground. The fruit’s outer seed coating is slimy, slippery and has a smell often described as rancid butter or vomit. If you touch the seeds, you’ll find that the smell is unpleasant and lingering and that the outer coating can also cause nasty skin rashes.

The easy solution to this problem is to plant only male trees. How do you know if you have a male or female gingko biloba since it may take 20 to 50 years for it to mature and produce fruit? Visit your local tree nursery for guidance – there’s even a male clone of the species to make your landscaping easier.

You can help preserve an endangered species and enjoy a beautiful, long-lived survivor of eons of natural history by planting a gingko biloba. Do you want to know more about this fascinating tree and how to care for it? The International Society of Arboriculture has chapters from Atlantic Canada to British Columbia. Check out the ISA website to find a member arborist near you.

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