While at a local garden center, I watched with interest as a young couple struggled to select a shade tree. Their highly animated conversation suggested that they were frustrated. Apparently, neither knew the first thing about trees. The label attached to each tree might as well have been written in Greek. But then they spotted a name they recognized: Pin Oak.
“Hey,” the young man exclaimed. “I think this is the kind of tree my dad planted when I was a kid.”
Being an old school Southern gentleman, I rarely poke my nose in other folk’s business. But it pained me that the young millennials were about to purchase a “botanical alley cat”: Pin Oak. Against my better judgment, I offered a little unsolicited advice.
“You guys buying a tree this morning?” I cheerfully asked. “Yes,” the young man gruffly replied, “a Pin Oak.”
“That’s cool,” I said. “But FYI, it’s been my experience that Pin Oak has lots of insect and disease problems locally. Have you considered buying a Ginkgo tree?” The couple glared at me as if I were a specimen in a petri dish.
“Nope,” the young man replied with a snarky attitude as he loaded the doggy Pin Oak on to a nursery cart and hastily strode away.
That certainly went well, I sighed. I so wish, however, that the young couple would have listened to an old horticulturist’s advice and purchased a Ginkgo tree. Years from now their children and their children’s children might have enjoyed the shade of a uniquely gorgeous tree.
Ginkgo biloba (aka Maidenhair Tree) has, according to fossil records, been around for at least 250 million years, a time that vastly predates humans. Hence, Ginkgo is often referred to as a “living fossil.” It was once thought to be extinct until several specimens were found growing in a mostly uninhabited region of China several hundred years ago.
Ginkgo, with its distinctive branching and unique fan-shaped foliage, is a tree that, once seen, is rarely forgotten. There is a gorgeous specimen growing in the far southeast corner of the Woodward Park Arboretum. In late fall, when its foliage turns golden yellow, I enjoy standing beneath this special tree and contemplating all the ecological events this amazing species has witnessed and endured over countless millennia.
Ginkgo has no close surviving relatives. It alone among currently living species can lay claim to having once provided shade for dinosaurs. Today, Ginkgo trees line streets and grand avenues from Beijing and Tokyo to Chicago and New York City. It’s estimated that upwards of 60,000 Ginkgo trees have been planted in the five boroughs of New York City. Its graceful branch structure is capable of reaching a height of 60 to 80 feet and the tree’s longevity can be measured in hundreds of years!
Biologically, Ginkgo is dioecious, meaning that male flowers are produced on one tree and female flowers are produced on a separate tree. Savvy gardeners rarely purchase a female Ginkgo due to the foul smell (like that of rancid butter) emitted by the nuts. I say “rarely” because Ginkgo nuts are greatly enjoyed in many Asian countries.
The male, non-fruiting, Ginkgo is a far better choice for Oklahoma gardeners. Local garden centers typically stock only grafted male varieties such as Autumn Gold, Princeton Sentry and Presidential Gold.
One last thought. If your heart is set on planting an oak this fall, I would suggest either Nuttall Oak or Shumard Oak. Both are far superior to Pin Oak.
Barry Fugatt is director of horticulture at the Tulsa Garden Center and Linnaeus Teaching Garden. He may be reached at 919-576-5152 or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org