Ashland’s Glorious Ginkgo Trees

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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.

Photo by Sally Horowitz

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 former cafe was named for its famous tree: The Ginkgo Tree Cafe.

Ashland’s 2012 calendar featured a lovely photo of ginkgo leaves by Ashland’s Director of Tour Operations, Avery Malone.

Photo by Avery Malone

Many thanks to Joel Damron, groundskeeper at Ashland from 2007 to 2010, for his historical botanical research and expertise.

2 thoughts on “Ashland’s Glorious Ginkgo Trees

  1. Hi Wendy,

    Thank you so much for continuing to do these. They are great! I know you value accuracy and so I wanted to let you know about some research I have done on the Gingko subject. Many people say Henry Clay had the first Gingkoes in the US or Kentucky or that he gave the former owner of their property or one they know of a gingko. I wanted to find the evidence for all this alleged activity so I searched for it. I found that Henry Clay could have in fact owned gingkoes as they were introduced in the US in Philadelphia and Charleston, SC in the late 18th or very early 19th centuries. That said, I could not find one reference in which both Henry Clay and gingkoes were mentioned together during his lifetime. Therefore, we have no idea whether he owned them, gave them away, or even was interested in them. As you note, none now present on the property predate the Civil War. I wish we could prove the connection. Oh, well that’s how those things go!

    See you soon!

    Eric Brooks

    Curator/Site Manager

    Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate

    120 Sycamore Road

    Lexington, KY 40502

    859-266-8581 x203

    859-268-7266 Fax

    Concerning Advice and Appraisals

    In keeping with our mission to preserve Ashland, The Henry Clay Estate as a National Historic Landmark, Museum and Educational Center to honor and interpret the life and legacy of Henry Clay, a great American statesman, our staff will endeavor to answer questions and provide information about artifacts and papers that might be associated with Ashland or the Clay family. Any such information is provided as a courtesy for your personal use and edification and is not intended, and should not be understood or represented, as an appraisal or a certification of authenticity or value. Any use for commercial or advertising purposes of the Henry Clay or Ashland name, likeness, or logo or the names and professional affiliations of its staff without the prior written consent of the Henry Clay Memorial Foundation is expressly prohibited.

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