Contributed by Katherine Wagner-Reiss

Ginkgo translates to “silver apricot,” but an apricot is a true fruit while Ginkgo biloba bears only a fruit-like seed. The seeds are used in Asian cuisine (minus the smelly outer coat), although toxicity has been reported. Photo by Katherine Wagner-Reiss.

Understanding the name Ginkgo biloba will allow you to identify this tree without fail! The genus name is a combination of two Japanese words: gin,”silver,” plus  kyo, “apricot,“ rendered as Ginkgo. This tree, which is native to East China, had long been cultivated in China, Japan, and Korea. When first encountered by a Western naturalist near a temple in Japan, and despite painstaking translation, the “y” in kyo became a “g.” Biloba refers to the characteristic leaves with two lobes. Find either the seeds, which resemble apricot fruits, and/or the fan-shaped bilobed leaves, and you will have correctly identified this tree. Maidenhair-tree is the apt common name, so called because of the similarity of the leaves to the leaflets (pinnae) of the maidenhair fern.

Ginkgo biloba 1932-0021*A. A female specimen from the Morris Estate is easily located near the main parking area. Photo by Katherine Wagner-Reiss.

The Morris Arboretum grows both the straight species Ginkgo biloba and one cultivar Ginkgo biloba ‘Spring Grove.’ ‘Spring Grove’ was found as a witches’ broom mutation on a tree in Spring Grove, Ohio, and has two qualities worth cultivating: it is a male, and it is a dwarf. Male ginkgos are often preferred over female ginkgos whose seeds contain butyric acid, producing a rancid butter smell after they litter the ground in the fall. Male ginkgos have their own downside: abundant pollen in the spring, which can be a respiratory allergen. A dwarf cultivar is a boon to those with a small garden site, since the species can grow to 80 x 40 feet while ‘Spring Grove’ matures at 6 x 4 feet, in 15 years or so.

The bark of a mature Ginkgo biloba is deeply furrowed. Photo by Katherine Wagner-Reiss.

Come to the Morris Arboretum to enjoy Ginkgo biloba, essentially unchanged from when it co-existed with dinosaurs, and also remarkable for an individual life-span that can exceed 1,000 years. The source of two of the Morris Arboretum specimens is the Morris Estate; exact locations can be found mapped on the Collection Connection.  Trace a leaf to see the unusual open dichotomous venation: the leaf veins successively fork into twos and never cross over one another. Wear gloves if you want to handle fallen seeds because they can cause an allergic skin rash. Enjoy the deep gold autumn color of the leaves and then try to witness a phenomenon: unlike most deciduous trees that shed their leaves gradually, the ginkgo leaves fall more or less simultaneously, sometimes in just one day after a hard frost: leaf abscission or magic, believe what you like! 

Gingko biloba ‘Spring Grove’ 2008-070*A . The characteristic bilobed fan-shaped leaves are the source of most ginkgo herbal remedies. Photo by Katherine Wagner-Reiss.

Maidenhair fern leaflets (pinnae) look like miniature versions of ginkgo leaves, leading to the common name of maidenhair-tree for Ginkgo biloba. Photo by Katherine Wagner-Reiss.


Katherine has her Certificate in Botany from the New York Botanical Garden and is a botanical tour guide and freelance writer.