There are those among us who think that you really don’t have fall color unless it’s scarlet red or flaming orange. But I submit that gold can be gorgeous, and no plant that we grow gives it any more effort than glorious ginkgoes at this time of the year.
Ginkgoes need a little push to move forward in the line. Few people know them as shade trees. But when you mention its full scientific name (Ginkgo biloba), those delving into herbal remedies brighten like daybreak. However, that medical stuff is miles above my pay grade, so I’m going to confine my glowing ginkgo remarks to its novelty and value as a North Texas shade tree.
I have two ginkgoes in the Sperry home landscape. Frankly, I think I may plant more. They’re absolutely trouble-free trees on which I’ve never seen any insect or disease. They’ve stood up to drought and flooding rains, record heat (113 degrees) and cold (almost to 0 degrees) and they’ve never complained. One of my trees has grown right outside my home office glass door to the west for almost 40 years, and the other outside my home office window to the north for 15 years. I like to plant ginkgoes where I can see and enjoy them.
These trees are magical at any month of the year. In the winter their stout, vase-shaped branch structure becomes an architectural icon. In spring, their large buds swell to reveal the developing leaves. In the summer their branches are filled with gray-green leaves that look like you took a fistful of pine needles and fused them together into a flattened, two-dimensional fan. Or, let me come from another direction. Their leaves look like grown-up versions of the leaves of maidenhair ferns, hence one of the tree’s common names: maidenhair tree. And of course, that great fall color speaks for itself.
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That “pine needle” thing reminds me to tell you that ginkgoes are a sort of link between gymnosperms (cone-bearing plants that usually have evergreen needles) and angiosperms (flowering, fruiting plants that generally have broad leaves and that are usually deciduous). Ginkgoes have broad leaves that turn gold and drop in the fall, and their fruit are cones, although they’re fleshy, fruity cones, quite unlike the dry types you find on pines and most other conifers.
Those fleshy, fruity ginkgo cones are also stinky and messy. You don’t want them around. Not to create some kind of male favoritism here in the garden, but in this one case you definitely want to buy a grafted male (therefore fruitless) selection of ginkgo. The one that everyone ends up growing (and that you see in my photos) is ‘Autumn Gold’. It was selected decades ago for its superior fall color and for the fact that it’s a male selection that will not bear fruit. Don’t buy a ginkgo unless it has a tag with that name, and still check to be sure you can see the bud union down near the ground.
Ginkgoes grow to be 35 or 40 feet tall and 30 to 35 feet wide. However, you need to know that it will take them a good many years to get that large. As shade trees in Texas go, they’re among our slowest growing of all. But they’re certainly worth the wait, especially when you see that glorious fall color.
I generally recommend ginkgoes as accent trees, that is, the third or fourth tree in a large landscape. They’re great near patios since the only mess the male selections make comes at their fairly rapid leaf drop in the fall.
My two trees are growing in “high shade,” that is, beneath very tall pecan trees. I’m not sure I’d recommend planting a ginkgo in hot, direct sunlight in our part of the Southwest. That might run the risk of sunscald and edge burn to the leaves. They seem to benefit from a little shade in the afternoon. (Who among us doesn’t!)
When is the best time to buy and plant your new ginkgo? Right now would be great. Nurseries still have them, although you’ll probably have the best luck if you shop at independent retail garden centers rather than the big national chains. Call ahead to ask. The plants are great impulse items when their leaves are in full color, so supplies sell out soon.
Because your tree will have been grafted, and because ginkgoes are slow-growing trees, you new plant will likely be more expensive than other trees of its size. Don’t let that scare you away, though. You’re going to have it for many years. Invest in a 10 or 20 gallon specimen. Transport it home in the back of a van or covered trailer or wrap it to protect its foliage. Carry it by its soil ball and plant it immediately at the same depth at which it had been growing in its nursery container. Water it thoroughly and stake and guy it if you think there’s any way it might tip.