Article written by Lorraine Cavanagh and printed in the Mediterranean Gardening and Outdoor Living Magazine.

The Living Fossil

Ginkgo Biloba

Most permanent residents in Iberia, if asked, would say that their favourite time of year here is either springtime or October. October because it is softer, separated from the searing heat of summer and because it is a time of change in our gardens. Whilst some plants wake up from their summer siesta, others start preparing for their winter Northern Europeans are accustomed to glorious displays of fiery autumn colours; here it is mellower but still lovely and one of the loveliest examples for soft autumn colour is the Ginkgo biloba or maidenhair tree from the family Ginkgoaceae.

The name Ginkgo is Chinese and means silver apricot because its fruits resemble a small apricot and the seeds snuggle inside a silver fleece; biloba is for its pretty fan-shaped leaves with two distinct lobes. Fossils of Ginkgo trees are commonly found in rocks dating from the Jurassic period – some 200 million years ago – when there were several dozen distinct species sharing the ground with dinosaurs. They were almost wiped out during the Ice Age but this one group of the family - living fossils - survived in China where it has since been planted in temples and palaces, loved and revered for its longevity and medicinal powers. Confucius is said to have given his teachings under the shade of a Ginkgo tree. In Japan, modern-day culture highly venerates the trees because they were the only ones to survive the Hiroshima bombing at close quarters. There were 6 Ginkgo biloba and, despite extremely challenging conditions, they are still alive today. Since then they have been regarded there as ‘the bearers of hope’ and, nowadays, some 65,000 of them are planted in Tokyo’s streets and parks.

The first examples reached Europe during the 18th century where they were quickly appreciated for their splendour in the grand estates and parklands of the wealthy.

Nowadays you don´t have to be wealthy to own a Ginkgo but you will need some space! They are towering trees, reaching some 40m tall with a spread of 15m. A true specimen tree and supremely elegant with their fresh green

foliage in springtime (resembling the maidenhair fern), the leaves turning soft butter yellow just before leaf fall when they will float down to form thick carpets of honey-gold and tawny brown - I´ve heard it aptly described as the Midas tree. In this season of mellowness, none is mellower than the Gingko tree.

Plant in full sun to partial shade; they are not too fussy about soil as long as it is well-drained. Water to establish but as they mature they will become drought tolerant. They are very hardy, down to -15C, disease-resistant and tolerate urban pollution and salt winds very well. For all these reasons they make excellent shade trees for street planting as well as a very beautiful specimen tree in large gardens.

There are distinct male and female trees. Males are usually used for street plantings. Females bear fruits which fall and make pavements messy and slippery and, when ripe, the fruits exude a smell like rancid butter – not greatly desirable! But the seeds of the fruits are roasted and considered a delicacy in China, tasting of pine nuts, but, take care, as the raw seeds are poisonous.

Ginkgo trees reach maturity, as we know it, and capable of producing seeds at around 25 years old – so you are going to have to be patient!! Sow seeds in a gritty compost in spring; germination usually takes 8 to 10 weeks. Or, save on time a little by buying 2 year young trees from garden centres when they will have attained 1m in height. At this stage, they are suitable for planting out into their final positions.

Whilst ginkgo may be struggling in the wild, huge plantations of them are being maintained not for their beauty but because of their medicinal properties. A multi-million industry has cashed in on this. An extract of the leaves is used in the West as a herbal remedy for short-term memory loss, to improve blood circulation, cognitive complaints such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia and to help against vertigo and tinnitus. 

Trees are known to live for 1000 years and there are claims of 4000 years for some examples so this is really a planting for the future – one that future generations will look at and praise your planting wisdom!

See mature examples in El Jardín de la Concepción in Málaga and in various botanical gardens throughout Portugal

and Spain.