This fascinating species grew in the gardens of temples in the East and the first seeds were brought to Europe in the 1700s. The decline of Ginkgo biloba in the wild (it is native only to China) is likely to have been a result of deforestation.
It is uncertain whether the maidenhair tree still persists in the wild and at present there are no conservation projects in place. Cultivated trees, however, are found throughout the world, and a multi-million dollar industry has cashed in on the medicinal properties of the leaves. As a result, it is likely that this ancient tree will stand the test of time.
Ginkgo biloba has a long history of cultural importance in Asia. Confucius was said to have given his teaching whilst sitting under a ginkgo tree, which is one of the reasons the species is revered in Chinese tradition.
It is planted as an ornamental or bonsai tree, or as a shade tree. Male trees are preferable due to the unpleasant smell of the flesh-coated seeds dropped by female trees. Despite the smell, these are a delicacy, hence the name ‘silver apricot’ in Chinese.
The seeds, known as ginkgo nuts, are eaten roasted or in birds' nest soup. The taste is said to be similar to that of a pine nut or sweet chestnut when baked. Ginkgotoxin (4'-O-methylpyridoxine), a constituent of the seeds, may cause poisoning unless the seeds are thoroughly cooked.
Male trees are usually selected for cultivation, as female ones bear strong-smelling flesh-coated seeds that some find repulsive. These rounded structures are fleshy and yellow, containing a large seed. At Kew the seeds are collected during the autumn for production of seedlings and for rootstocks for grafting. The seeds are prepared by removal of the flesh, and then by placing them in a cold store for stratification.
The seeds are sown into open gritty compost in the spring. Tony Hall, who manages this collection at Kew, reports that germination usually takes eight to ten weeks and is predictable, with a similar performance from all the seeds. Germination takes place in a cool greenhouse, kept frost free (at a minimum of 5 °C), in natural light. The seedlings are generally free from pests and diseases. They are planted out in the Arboretum Nursery field when large enough. This is usually the following spring. After two years the plants can be as tall as 1.5 m, at which point they are planted out into their final positions in the garden.
The maidenhair tree at Kew
There is a good collection of cultivars of Ginkgo biloba in the areas around the Waterlily Pond and the Bamboo Garden at Kew. In 2009 Her Majesty the Queen planted one of the seedlings raised in the Arboretum Nursery near to the Orangery for Kew’s 250th anniversary celebrations.
Maidenhair tree at Kew Gardens
Perhaps the most well known tree of this species is the ‘Old Lion’ west of the Princess of Wales Conservatory. This was one of the first of this species to be planted in Britain, dating back to at least 1762 - less than 40 years after the first specimens had been introduced to Europe from China. It is one of the few trees at Kew remaining from the first botanic garden started by Princess Augusta, George III's mother, in 1759. Its hardiness was unknown, so it was planted against the wall of the Great Stove glasshouse for protection. This was subsequently demolished in 1861, which left the ginkgo standing alone.
This specimen is a multistemmed tree, probably due to the transplanting and moving early in its life which may have accounted for it losing its growing point. Past curators of the Gardens recall the tree being grown against the wall of the great stove where it 'was trained like a fruit tree'. Other instances of Ginkgo trees being trained in this way have been reported. Several Ginkgo were planted at Kew in 1773 under the direction of Sir Joseph Banks.
In 2002 it became one of the 50 'Great British Trees' in a scheme run by the Tree Council to celebrate the Queen’s Golden Jubilee.
Kew's 'Old Lions'
Kew’s ‘Old Lions’ are some of the few remaining trees with the oldest actual known planting date of 1762. They comprise: Ginkgo biloba (maidenhair tree), Styphnolobium japonicum (pagoda tree) and Platanus orientalis (oriental plane) to the west of the Princess of Wales Conservatory; Robinia pseudoacacia (black locust) on the lawn to the front of the Orangery; and Zelkova carpinifolia (Caucasian elm) situated in the Herbarium paddock.
Some of these trees were brought from a neighbouring estate at Whitton which belonged to the Duke of Argyll (the uncle of Lord Bute, the botanical advisor to Princess Augusta). They became part of a new five acre arboretum, laid out by William Aiton, which sat next to the Orangery.
Now, 250 years after these trees were planted, Kew is celebrating the ‘Old Lions’, which can be seen in all their splendour, still growing in the Gardens.
Conservation assessments carried out at Kew
Ginkgo biloba is being monitored as part of the IUCN Sampled Red List Index for Plants, which aims to produce conservation assessments for a representative sample of the world’s plant species. This information will then be used to monitor trends in extinction risk and help focus conservation efforts where they are needed most.