Ginkgo biloba, maidenhair tree, is a very unique tree.
It’s often referred to as the ‘living fossil.’ More than 200 million years ago, when dinosaurs roamed North America, Ginkgo was the dominant tree species. In North America (and elsewhere) the tree went extinct, along with the Stegosaurus. But its popularity as a street or specimen tree has only grown over the years.
The Ginkgo ’s fan-shaped leaves help to make it one of the most easily recognizable landscape trees. Its leathery leaves stay bright green all summer long, until late October when they turn a spectacular yellow. When a freeze hits them, the tree drops most, if not all of its leaves at once, leaving the ground painted in yellow. Homeowners learn quickly how difficult it is to rake up the thick, tough leaves, notorious for taking a long time to decompose. Its habit can vary tremendously. But, an irregular shape and open growth habit are typical for most.
One of the reasons for Ginkgo’s popularity is that they are incredibly pollution tolerant. That’s why you’ll see so many planted along city streets. They can endure compacted soils, heat and drought and are disease and insect resistant. According to one leading horticulture authority, they also display good soil salt tolerance.
Mention of the maidenhair tree is not complete without acknowledging the fruit, botanically, the naked seed of the Ginkgo. The fleshy covering of the seed, the shape of a plum, turns from green to a pale peach and can be incredibly foul smelling to many. The trees don’t fruit until they reach 20 to 25 years old. Since the trees are dioecious, male and female flowers are on separate trees, this can be a problem. Sometimes you don’t know whether you have a male or female, until it’s too late.
Smelly fruit or not, Ginkgo is planted and revered in China, Japan and Korea at some of the country’s most important Buddhist temples, according to Peter Crane, author of the book titled Ginkgo. It’s also a survivor of WWII atomic bombings. Ginkgo is a resilient, ancient, beautiful tree.
Endangered, small native populations are still purported to exist in the wilds of China.
The trees are located in several places in the cemetery: Marshall Drive, between Sections 64 and 65, is lined with Ginkgos, there are some very fine specimens in Section 33, as well as Memorial Section K off Ord & Weitzel Drive. One of the more spectacular specimens is located at the top of the Custis Walk steps, near the Arlington House.
The top illustration is from a book by Engelbert Kaempfer, 1712, "Amoenitatum Exoticarum." Second photo taken by Stephen Smith, Arlington National Cemetery.