Common Ginkgo Cultivars: How Many Kinds Of Ginkgo Are There

Common Ginkgo Cultivars: How Many Kinds Of Ginkgo Are There

By: Mary Ellen Ellis

Ginkgotrees are unique in that they are living fossils, largely unchanged fornearly 200 million years. They have pretty, fan-shaped leaves and trees areeither male or female. In the landscape, different kinds of ginkgo can be bigshade trees and attractive ornamental additions to gardens. There are severalvarieties from which you can choose.

About Ginkgo Cultivars

A ginkgo tree can grow up to 80 feet (24 meters) high and 40feet (12 meters) wide, but there are also smaller varieties. All have thespecial, fan-shaped leaves. Ginkgo leaves turn vibrant yellow early in thefall, and they do well in urban environments. They require minimal care oncemature.

One important consideration when choosing a ginkgo tree ofany variety is the fact that mature female trees produce fruit. The fruitbegins to develop after about twenty years and it can be pretty messy. Manywould also describe the smell as unpleasant.

Ginkgo Tree Varieties

A male ginkgo tree is a great addition to most gardens. Andyou can choose the growth habit, size, and other characteristics by selectingfrom among several types of ginkgo tree:

  • Fairmount. This is a columnar ginkgo, meaning its growth habit is narrow and upright. This is a good choice for narrow spaces with plenty of vertical room.
  • Princeton Sentry. Also a columnar variety, this one is a little taller and wider than Fairmont and grows relatively quickly.
  • Autumn Gold. Autumn Gold is a canopy tree, great for where you have a lot of space and want shade. It will grow up to 50 feet (15 meters) high and 35 feet (11 meters) wide.
  • Chase Manhattan. This is a dwarf, shrub-like ginkgo that will only reach a height of about 6 feet (2 meters).
  • Majestic Butterfly. This type has variegated leaves, green streaked with yellow. It is also a smaller tree at just 10 feet (3 meters) high at maturity.
  • Lacy Ginkgo. The lacy cultivar is so called for its leaves, which have a textured edge that gives the appearance of lace.

Male and female ginkgo cultivars often have different names,so be sure you select a male tree if you want one that is low maintenance andwon’t produce fruit.

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The Ginkgo Tree: A Story of Survival

Many of us can’t wait for the autumn show of the Ginkgo biloba (maidenhair tree), which tends to peak just before the buttery-yellow leaves fall all at once, as if they’d planned a dead-of-night drop and one of them said, “ready, set, go.” Considered a living fossil and one of the world’s most historic and distinctive trees, the ginkgo is also one of the most reliable and common street trees, from New York to London to Tokyo (it’s one of the most widely planted trees in Japan). Some people also appreciate the ginkgo’s culinary and medicinal uses or its inspiration to art and spirituality.

Then there’s Professor Sir Peter Crane, a botanist and evolutionary biologist at Yale University, who has taken ginkgo appreciation and study—and fandom—to new depths and lengths, literally around the globe. What he describes as his “multiyear obsession with this very special tree” has led to a book called Ginkgo: The Tree That Time Forgot (Yale University Press, 2013). It’s a serious scientific monograph, but hardly dry. It also reads like an unabashed fan letter to the ginkgo and a meditation on the relationship between plants and people. A sampling of chapter titles shows his range: Time, Energy, Sex, Origins, Persistence, Extinction, Reprieve, Gardens, Nuts, Streets, Pharmacy, Legacy.

Crane says the ginkgo gave him “the perfect opportunity to talk about the work I’ve been doing-evolutionary history, cultural history interactions, and how and where plants stand with people.” He grew up in England, earned a Ph.D. in Botany, and began to learn how interesting and how important the ginkgo is. He recalls a field trip to Yorkshire’s fossil fields with the late Thomas Maxwell Harris, a noted British paleobotanist. Crane’s understated reaction to the 150-million-year-old fossilized leaves of an ancestor of today’s Ginkgo biloba: “Wow, this is an old tree.”

In 1981 Crane came to the U.S. for research and later held positions at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. On a fossil-hunting trip to a treeless area of North Dakota in 1982, a local collector showed him “an exquisitely preserved ginkgo leaf.” The fossil was 57 million years old, and it looked just like a leaf of a modern-day ginkgo.

Crane delved further into ginkgos when he returned to England to serve as director and chief executive of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, from 1999 to 2006. As he says in his book, “During those seven years, the oldest and perhaps the most important ginkgo in the United Kingdom flourished just steps from our family’s home in the garden. We passed it almost every day.” The tree was planted around 1761—European traders had brought ginkgo seeds, seedlings, or cuttings to Europe only a decade or two earlier.

The ginkgo’s amazing survival story goes back more than 200 million years. Crane writes, “Ginkgo is a tree that has persisted, little changed, for these unimaginable eons, and its history is an extraordinary tale of survival against great odds.” Ginkgo’s prehistoric ancestors ranged widely throughout the world, but clearly began to decline about 100 million years ago, becoming confined to limited areas of eastern Asia. Still, it endured despite the cataclysmic events that eliminated the dinosaurs and much other plant life.

Around a thousand years ago, the ginkgo was brought from the wild into temple gardens of China, and was later introduced to Japan and Korea. Crane writes that its medicinal and culinary usefulness allowed it to thrive alongside people. It has even proved resilient to modern city life—including 60,000 ginkgo street trees in New York City—which Crane credits to the tree’s roots’ relative tolerance of compacted soil, its ability to survive with poor air quality, and little oxygen getting to the roots.

Crane explains how one of the ginkgo’s many quirky ways have given it another edge in survival. The tree is relatively unusual among seed-bearing plants in having male and female reproductive parts on separate trees. The female ginkgo produces the famously stinky seeds containing the prized and edible nuts. The trees used for landscaping are usually named varieties of male trees (thus odor-free), selected for their form (from compact ‘Lakeview’ to columnar ‘Princeton Sentry’ to weeping ‘Pendula’) or brilliance of fall color (‘Autumn Gold’). There’s also ‘Variegata’, with cream-and-green variegated leaves.

For his services in research and conservation programs, as well as his leadership at the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, Crane was knighted in the U.K. in 2004. Now his main interest is studying living plants with a paleontological history—such as the dawn redwood and the magnolia and its relatives—and what can be learned from them. He worries about the danger to biodiversity because of intense deforestation around the world, with more species becoming extinct now than at any other time in history. Though the ginkgo is a success story—of near extinction and survival—it serves also as a cautionary tale of potential loss. Crane writes that the ginkgo asks us to “think more carefully about all we lose when the short view rules our world and everything in it.”

An approximately 80-year-old G. biloba bonsai at Royal Horticultural Society’s Wisley Garden at the peak of its autumn color.


Ginkgo biloba is the only living member of a group of gymnosperms that date back over 270 million years ago, to the Permian period. This tree predates the dinosaurs! There was an increase of species during the Middle Jurassic and Cretaceous periods, and the tree was spread through Europe, Asia, and North America. By the Tertiary period, 65 million years ago, only two species survived. Ginkgo biloba is the only species extant today.The ginkgo has been cultivated in Asia, where it is valued as a food source as well as for its beauty. The oldest specimens are usually on temple grounds.

Engelbert Kaempfer, a German botanist and physician sent to Japan by the Dutch East India Company, found the ginkgo tree growing there in 1691. He described the tree in his 1712 book, Amoenitatum exoticarum, and sent seeds to Holland. One of the oldest ginkgo trees in Europe can still be seen growing in the Botanical Garden in Utrecht.

Ginkgo biloba ‘Weeping Wonder’

Weeping Wonder develops into a small, weeping tree with gracefully drooping side branches. The orange-brown twigs and fairly dense branching makes it distinct from other larger-growing weeping varieties like ‘Umbrella’ or ‘Pendula’. Weeping Wonder Ginkgo is also unique since its foliage takes on many different shapes. Some leaves are tube-like or filamentous while others have a traditional look.

Ginkgo trees come in different shapes and sizes

Q: I was reading in National Geographic about ancient trees. I would like to get a ginkgo tree. Any advice? Bonny Wright, Kennesaw

A: Ginkgo is a great tree and there are a lot of varieties to choose from. 'Princeton Sentry' is columnar 'Autumn Gold' makes a wide canopy for where you have a lot of space. Conversely, 'Chase Manhattan' is a dwarf, shrublike ginkgo that will only reach a height of about 6 feet. Since ginkgo is a relatively slow growing tree, be sure you plant it correctly to give it all the advantages. Tree planting details at

Q: I need to plant some trees to help with a water issue in my yard. We get water from my uphill neighbors. We figure trees will help soak up the water. Tabatha Burks, Fulton County

A: Some trees and shrubs tolerate wet soil, but they don't "soak up" the water nearby. If you're looking to have water-tolerant screen plants, Florida anise (Illicium floridanum), inkberry (Ilex glabra), sweet pepperbush (Clethra alnifolia), sweetshrub (Calycanthus floridus), Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica) and winterberry (Ilex verticillata) are good choices.

Q: Do deer like Spartan junipers? Karla Schuster, email

A: Some evergreens are commonly fed on by deer, but juniper is not usually one of them.

Q: I have several Green Giant arborvitae that have grown beautifully. I would like to top them, in an effort to force more growth toward the middle. Mel Wilinsky, email

A: Pruning out the top of a tree doesn't force growth to occur in the middle of the tree. Pruning causes "nearby" dormant buds to sprout, but "nearby" means somewhere between 2 and 12 inches away from the cut, not 2 to 12 feet away. The only other thing that causes growth to occur in a certain vicinity is increased exposure to sunshine. Sunshine triggers photosynthesis in dormant buds and makes them sprout. The best way to control the shape and size of an arborvitae is to prune when the need is seen, not years later.

Q: The online retailer where I bought my butterfly bush recommends gardeners not to amend clay soil for a butterfly bush. Agree or disagree? Brenda Jefferson, DeKalb County

A: It is true that in most cases no amendments are needed when planting a tree or shrub. Amendments create a paradise for roots, which they are reluctant to leave when they need to explore the surrounding soil for new sources of water and nutrients. An exception could be made if you are planting a big shrub bed and can amend the entire area. And keep in mind that amendments are useful when you're planting annual or perennial flowers. I know this flies in the face of recommendations I have made over my career, but I am not too old to change my mind.

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