The ginkgo tree (Ginkgo biloba) is in a class of its own -- quite literally. The tree is the only remaining member of the Ginkgo family. While it's only one species, the many cultivars give you some choice. With its distinctive, fan-shaped leaves and brilliant fall color, the ginkgo tree grows in many climates and does well in harsh conditions.

Ginkgo tree
credit: daizuoxin/iStock/Getty Images

Climate and Culture

The gingko tree grows in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 3 through 8A. It's a good choice for almost any yard except those in hot climates. This tough tree thrives in cold weather and in full sun or partial shade. It will tolerate all different kinds of soil -- including clay or loam -- and can even grow in wet areas. In addition, the gingko tree can tolerate periods of drought. Its roots are not invasive, and it is resistant to breakage and rarely bothered by serious diseases or insect pests.

Size and Appearance

You can instantly recognize a ginkgo tree by its fan-shaped leaves. The Japanese sometimes call it the "I-cho" tree, which translates to "tree with duck-feet leaves." The leaves turn golden in fall before soon dropping, with some cultivars having a more brilliant yellow hue than others. The gingko tree, which is also sometimes called the maidenhair tree, can grow to a maximum average height and width of 75 and 60 feet, respectively, but is usually much shorter in small yards, urban areas and in warmer climates. It grows slowly and can be pruned to control its size. The overall shape of the tree is usually round or pyramidal, with an open, irregular canopy.

History and Uses

The gingko tree is sometimes referred to as a "living fossil," because it is the oldest living tree in the world, according to Bellarmine University. One tree in China is more than 3,000 years old. Native to southeast Asia, the trees were brought to the U.S. in the late 1700s, and they are frequently used as street trees due to their ability to tolerate pollution. The gingko tree makes a suitable specimen tree, and works well as a shade tree, once established.

Special Considerations

Always plant a male ginkgo. Cultivars include "Autumn Gold" and "Fairmont." The male trees won't produce the messy, smelly fruit. The fruit has a foul odor, similar to rancid butter, described as "repulsive," "evil" and "like vomit." Female ginkgos are so undesirable they are banned in many U.S. cities. The fruit and leaves of the tree are toxic, but only if eaten in large amounts. Most animals stay far away from the fruit.