Garden Guide: This common street tree existed before dinosaurs

Ginkgo trees are the oldest tree species on the planet, and they could have gone extinct if it wasn’t for humans.

Alex Calamia

Oct 18, 2023, 10:17 AM

Updated 279 days ago


Ginkgo biloba trees shine this time of the year, with their golden fan-shaped foliage. These trees are a popular landscape choice in cities where they resist pollution and environmental stress. They have long lifespans and are beautiful, but there is so much more to these trees than meets the eye.
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Ginkgo biloba are considered living fossils because they have remained the same for 200 million years. At this point in the planet’s history, all the continents were attached to each other. To give some perspective, Tyrannosaurus rex dinosaurs wouldn’t exist for another 100 million years.
Ginkgo trees are one of the best-suited trees for cities and challenging garden spots and have a special adaptation that allows them to live indefinitely. Unlike most living organisms, the Ginkgo’s immune system actually gets stronger with age. While most trees can only live for a few hundred years, a Ginkgo is capable of living for at least 4,000 years.
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Although Ginkgo might look similar to other leafy trees, they have absolutely no living relatives. Their closest ancestors are pine trees and spiky cycads. The fruit grows inside cones which is a distinct characteristic that separates Ginkgo trees from similar-looking deciduous trees. An individual tree is either male or female. It's easy to tell these trees apart just by smell.
Ginkgo fruit has an incredibly strong and unpleasant fragrance. Most gardeners choose to only plant male Gingko trees in their landscapes for this reason, but it's impossible to tell if a tree is male or female until it's about 20 years old and mature enough to produce fruit or pollen. Even though the female Ginkgo tree is not desirable for most homeowners, they’ve been studied for potential medicinal properties.
Incredibly, this tree is almost extinct in the wild. There are only a few trees left in their native habitats, but Chinese gardeners saw their value and started cultivating the tree about a thousand years ago. Today, Ginkgo trees are planted in cities across the world. It's a rare instance where humans may have saved a species on the path to extinction.

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