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Of the many hundreds of trees at Ashland today, the ginkgo biloba trees that stand so majestically in Ashland’s front lawn are treasured examples of the ancient and unusual species. Ginkgos are unique in many respects and have no close relatives in the tree family.
The ginkgo tree may be thought of as a living fossil, one of the oldest living species on earth, and unchanged for millions of years. Originally native around the world, the North American ginkgos did not survive the last ice age. After the species was brought from Europe to North America about two hundred years ago, Henry Clay was believed to be the first to re-introduce the species to central Kentucky.
The ginkgo is a long-lived, slow-growing tree. The largest ginkgo in Ashland’s front yard was planted after Clay’s lifetime, sometime around the Civil War; it has taken nearly 150 years for it to reach its current size. Ginkgos can reach a height of 115 feet and live for hundreds – and even thousands – of years.
Beyond the unique flat, fan-shaped leaves, one hallmark of the ginkgo is the method by which it prepares for winter: while most trees experience a gradual change of color and then drop leaves over a period of many weeks or even months, ginkgo leaves will change to a golden yellow in a much shorter time with leaf drop following quite rapidly, sometimes within a matter of days.
Ginkgos are also dioecious, meaning that some trees are male, some female. While the male trees produce pollen cones, female trees produce a fruit-like seed that contain butanoic acid that notoriously smells like rancid butter or cheese when fallen. The trees at Ashland (many would say, fortunately!) are male and do not produce the mess and stench that the female ginkgos in the surrounding neighborhood do.
Ashland’s popular seasonal cafe is named for its famous tree: The Ginkgo Tree Cafe. (see Ashland website for more info: http://www.henryclay.org/visitor-information/)
Ashland’s 2012 calendar, on sale in the museum store, features a lovely photo of ginkgo leaves by Ashland’s Director of Tour Operations, Avery Malone.
Many thanks to Joel Damron, groundskeeper at Ashland from 2007 to 2010, for his historical botanical research and expertise.