May 26, 2018
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Ginkgo trees shade Bangor residents, visitors

Kevin P. Tremblay | BDN
Kevin P. Tremblay | BDN
The City of Bangor has planted young ginkgo trees along Main Street in Bangor. These are male trees, preferred over female trees, which produce large seeds that stink when squashed. The ginkgo is an excellent shade tree for use in urban areas.
By Kevin P. Tremblay, Special to The Weekly


A large solitary Ginkgo biloba tree grows on Fern Street in Bangor, behind Coffee Express. This ginkgo is likely the oldest one in Bangor or even the region. Without other ginkgos of the opposite sex in the area, it is unknown whether this one is a male or female tree.

There is hope, however, as dozens of juvenile ginkgos have been planted in Bangor.

Along Main Street there are some juvenile ginkgos, and on Center Street there are a few in front of Brookings Smith Funeral Home. Steven King has an adolescent ginkgo growing in his well-landscaped yard. The city of Bangor Tree Nursery contains about a dozen sapling trees, too.

Few older ginkgos are found in Maine. There are some plantings of ginkgos at the University of Maine that are worthy of note. Ginkgos are considered to be hardy to zone 5, but struggle this far north. Bangor is an unreliable zone 5 in my estimation. Ginkgos are seen into parts of southern Canada.

In the last few decades ginkgos have been recommended and planted as urban street trees, males only, because of the messy fruit produced by female ginkgo trees. Ginkgos are tolerant of dry conditions, pests and smog, and are ornamental and long-lived trees. More than half a million ginkgos are planted along Japanese roadsides according to Dr. Peter Crane, a ginkgo expert. It is the most widely planted tree in Japan.

In New York City, 16,184 ginkgo trees have been planted, and in Minneapolis more than 5,000. “Ginkgo is among the most widely planted street tree in the world,” writes Crane.

The fruit, technically an almond-shaped seed, only appears on mature fertilized female trees after they reach about 30 years of age. When ripe, the seed is encased in a putrid, yellow fleshy plum-like covering that smells like vomit.

The fleshy coverings are nasty when squished, litter the ground and can cause a rash like poison ivy if handled without gloves. After this fleshy covering is removed, the seeds are roasted in their shell. The seeds are eaten as a delicacy in China and Japan, where they are sold in local markets.

The fruit and leaves from this tree are used as an herbal memory enhancer and to improve “cerebral insufficiency.” Ginkgo biloba leaves and fruit are in herbals used for specific medical complaints and to increase vigor. A South Carolina ginkgo farm has thousands of acres of trees under cultivation. Every five years the trees are cut to ground level to keep them short so the leaves are more easily harvested.

Also known as the maidenhair-tree, the ginkgo is a representative of an ancient tree species found in fossil records with relatives going as far back as 250 million years, scientists have reported. In 1691 the ginkgo was “rediscovered” in Nagasaki, Japan, by the German Engelbert Kaempfer, then employed by the Dutch East India Company.

Seeds were sent to the Netherlands, and eventually ginkgos were introduced all over world. A historic ginkgo grows in London’s Kew Garden; planted in the 1760s. This tree is named The Lion.

Ginkgos were introduced into cultivation in the United States in 1784, and they can grow to more than 100 feet in height.

Until Kaempfer’s discovery the ginkgo had been considered extinct. He found ginkgos cultivated on the grounds of many Buddhist temples and monasteries and Shinto shires in China, Japan and Korea. Some temple trees are more than 1,000 years old. There were rumors of wild populations of them since being found in Nagasaki.

Dr. Peter del Tredici of Harvard University and the Arnold Arboretum was part of an expedition in 1989 to the Tian Mu Shan Reserve in China that found ginkgos in the wild. In 2012 another wild population of ginkgos was found in China in the Dalou Mountains area; 244 trees were identified in this discovery.

Speculation about the origin these “wild trees” is that they may be from cultivated ones by former settlers to these areas or seed was carried from temple ginkgo trees and escaped back into the wild.

On Aug. 8, Peter Crane will give a presentation at the Coastal Botanical Garden in Boothbay on his recently published book on the ginkgo,” The Tree that Time Forgot.” His book documents the history of a tree nearly extinct and being restored to the planet by human intervention. When first rediscovered it was considered a pine, but this tree is in a class of its own.

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