Skip to main content

You are here

Facebook icon
Pinterest icon
Twitter icon

Maidenhair tree

The maidenhair tree has been around since the days of the dinosaurs, and trees growing 1-2 km from the 1945 atom bomb blast at Hiroshima were among the few living things to survive.

Leaves of the maidenhair tree

About Kew's maidenhair tree

King George III's mother, Princess Augusta, planted this tree in 1762. It was the first Ginkgo grown in Britain.

Back then, a glasshouse stood here and Kew’s gardeners placed the new tree next to its wall for shelter, not realising the tree was quite resilient. They also trained it like a fruit tree.

This tree is one of the oldest at Kew, but it’s still a baby compared to some Ginkgos around the world, which are up to 3,000 years old. The species is a living fossil, being the sole survivor of a family of trees that date back to the time of the dinosaurs.

Kew's Ginkgo biloba was one of 50 Great British Trees listed as part of Queen Elizabeth II's Golden jubilee celebration.

Take a closer look

  • Take a good look at the leaves. The veins fan out without making a network – this is unique among seed plants.
  • The male trees have pollen-producing catkins – females produce seeds which smell foul, like vomit. This tends to make them less popular than the males for ornamental planting! This tree is male; look for females at the Palm House end of Pagoda Vista or around the Waterlily Pond.
     

Tree biology

A typical Ginkgo is tall and slim when young, then its crown widens as it ages. This particular tree is unusual in being multistemmed, probably due to training soon after planting.

Ginkgos are extremely hardy but dislike shade, and do best in moist, well-drained places. In autumn after turning bright yellow, the leaves drop quickly in as little as a single day.

Ginkgos were widespread 10 million years ago, but have declined since. Now they are only native to China – perhaps saved thanks to the monks who planted them in temple gardens.

Cultivation and uses

Ginkgo seeds are eaten in a type of rice porridge called congee or as a side dish in China. They are also popular ornamental trees. Males are usually preferred as they don't produce smelly seeds.

Leaf extracts are used in traditional Chinese medicine. They are thought to improve memory and attentiveness, and act as a hangover cure. This adds up to global sales of Ginkgo extracts estimated at half a billion US dollars (over 300 million pounds) a year – so though they are all but extinct in the wild, Ginkgos do very well in gardens and commercial plantations.

Quick facts

  • Scientific name: Ginkgo biloba – biloba for its two- (bi-) lobed leaves.
  • Family: Ginkgoaceae. 
  • Place of origin: China, where it is revered. The philosopher Confucius is said to have taught under a Ginkgo tree.
  • Conservation status: Endangered. It is unclear whether any truly wild Ginkgos survive. Kew monitors this species as part of a project to target conservation efforts.
  • Date planted: 1762
  • Height: 21.1 m. These trees can grow to over 40 m tall.