Gold on the Ground – Ginkgo biloba

Was there ever a maiden with hair the gold of this extremely ancient tree, known as a “maidenhair” tree? Many years ago this tree with the notable fan-shapes leaves was found everywhere across the planet. Due to several unfortunate circumstances, the Ginkgo is now native to a couple of small areas in China, but has adapted quite nicely to North America’s southeast region.
The common name ‘maidenhair’ refers to the maidenhair fern, whose leaves are similar in their shape and veining. However, that’s where the similarity ends as this deciduous tree can grow to a majestic 80 feet although most only achieve statures several feet shorter. The Ginkgo is visually pleasing in any season with its unique leaf structure during spring and summer, but it jumps out in fall when leaves turn a color described variously as golden, buttery, or sun-drenched. To render this tree even more attractive, its leaves tend to fall all at once instead of a few here and there over several weeks. So if raking leaves is on the ‘to do’ list, this tree’s habit of dropping all-at-once is appreciated.

Gingko biloba leaves

Gingko biloba leaves. Photo by NavyBank, Shutterstock

The Ginkgo is slow growing, rather awkward as a young tree but maturing to graceful and well proportioned as it ages. Other characteristics of note; seeds of the Ginkgo are considered a delicacy in some cultures, but be aware there are potential health risks as seeds contain a chemical that can cause seizures and convulsions especially in children. Other medicinal benefits attributed to Ginkgo leaves and seeds, including improved memory, are still under review so should be regarded as such.
If interested in planting a Ginkgo tree, the plant is not picky regarding soil pH and is tolerant of urban environments that other tree species might shun. The tree does need full to partial sun so a shady yard is not going to provide the color for which Ginkgo leaves are famous. While they tolerate heavier clay soil, good drainage is a must for its survival.
One other aspect of the Ginkgo is important if one is installed in your landscape: be sure to plant a male tree, as mature female trees produce generous amounts of messy, stinky fruit.
Resistant to deer, most pests and diseases, the Ginkgo is a multi-purpose shade or specimen tree, requiring a low level of maintenance with regular watering and once-yearly fertilization.
A testament to their strength and tenacity, it is reported they were the only tree species to survive the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Whether altogether factual, this is a tough, attractive tree that can easily be the fall focal point of a landscape.

By Sallie Lee, Urban Regional Extension Agent, Alabama Cooperative Extension System.  Contact Sallie at leesall@aces.edu.


The Alabama Cooperative Extension System (ACES) operates as the primary outreach organization for the land-grant functions of Alabama A&M and Auburn Universities. ACES is committed to affirmative action, equal opportunity and the diversity of its workforce.  Educational programs of ACES serve all people regardless of race, color, age, sex, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or national origin.

Alabama Extension

The Alabama Cooperative Extension System operates as the primary outreach organization for the land-grant functions of Alabama A&M and Auburn Universities and answers home-gardeners' questions each week on Birmingham Gardening Today.

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