The Golden Trees of Fall

Brighten up autumn skies with the sunny leaves of ginkgoes. 

Story by Gene B. Bussell
Ginko Grove Boyce Virginia
Ginkgo grove at Blandy Experimental Farm in Boyce, Virginia, open to the public from dawn to dusk every day
Photo: Roger Foley

One of the Oldest tree species on the planet is the ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba). Also called maidenhair tree, this deciduous conifer is a living fossil. Though these trees once grew wild in North America, they are now native only to a few parts of China. For centuries, Buddhists beautified their temple gardens with ginkgoes, some of which are over a thousand years old. With fan-shaped leaves that turn bright yellow in fall, these slow-growing trees are now planted and admired all over the world.

The Ginkgo Grove

What began in 1929 as a scientific experiment became something breathtaking. Knowing ginkgoes could be either male or female, Dr. Orland E. White, the first director of the Blandy Experimental Farm in Boyce, Virginia, wanted to sprout seeds from a single tree to test the male-to-female ratio of the saplings, which he theorized would be 1 to 1. He germinated seeds taken from a ginkgo on the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville and, with his students, planted more than 600 saplings at the Blandy site. Dr. White was right, and now 300 trees remain—America's largest planting of ginkgoes for research.

Plant a Tree

Versatile and resilient, ginkgoes can be used as specimens and street trees. They can even be trained as bonsai. Female trees have foul-smelling, fleshy seeds, so choose male selections. For a big impact, try 'Autumn Gold' (30 to 50 feet tall and wide). For tight spaces, plant the more columnar 'Gold Spire' (15 feet tall and 5 feet wide) or the V-shaped 'Jade Butterflies' (12 feet tall and 10 feet wide). In pots, try the dwarf 'Troll' (3 feet tall and wide). Buy locally or from forestfarm.com.