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Starting a Ginkgo Tree From Seed

Updated on January 9, 2017
The Dirt Farmer profile image

Jill volunteers at community gardens & learns about gardening through the MD Master Gardening Program & MD Master Naturalist Program.

A stand of ginkgo trees in Mariemont Park, Belgium.
A stand of ginkgo trees in Mariemont Park, Belgium. | Source

I can't resist collecting seeds.

Sometimes I venture out, a paper bag or glass jar in hand, and collect them from our yard.

More often, I pick them up wherever I happen to be, so it didn't surprise my husband too much when I stopped under a row of shedding Gingko biloba trees on our way into a movie theater.

Have you ever collected seeds?

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Ginkgo seeds
Ginkgo seeds | Source

Collecting Ginkgo Seeds

"Look, ginkgos!" I cried, grabbing a handful of fat, sticky seeds from the sidewalk.

Landscapers generally use male ginkgos because they don't drop ginkgo fruit, which reputedly smells like rancid butter as it rots, but whoever installed the landscaping outside the AMC had planted a few females trees as well.

Ginkgos are long-lived trees, the oldest one recorded at 3,500 years old. Most, however, only make it to one thousand.

These trees had to be at least 20; female ginkgos don't produce fruit until they're at least that old.

The fruit of a female ginkgo tree
The fruit of a female ginkgo tree | Source

The acids in gingko fruit are similar to urushiol, the skin irritant found in poison ivy and poison oak. Although I didn't have a reaction, to be on the safe side, you may want to wear gloves when collecting it.

A New Windowsill Project

"They're the oldest tree species on earth," I told Dennis, stuffing seeds into my pockets. "They're older than the dinosaurs! Scientists call them living fossils."

The look on his face was priceless— a blend of embarrassment, humor and tenderness (or at least I hope that's what it was).

He wore the same expression the next day when, while hiking historic St. Mary's City in Southern Maryland, we came across more ginkgo trees, and I grabbed up more seeds— and decided it was fate: I would make starting ginkgo trees from seed my new windowsill project.

A ginkgo leaf in spring
A ginkgo leaf in spring | Source

Ginkgo biloba are commonly called maidenhair trees because their fan-like leaves resemble the leaflets or pinnae of the maidenhair fern.

Preparing the Seeds for Germination

Washed and scrubbed ginkgo seeds
Washed and scrubbed ginkgo seeds | Source

That afternoon when we got home, I sorted the seeds I'd collected and washed them, scrubbing off the sticky fruit as best I could.

Then I set them on a clean, dry cloth to dry and began researching how to start ginkgos from seed.

All the sources that I read agreed on one essential step in the germination process: stratification.

The ginkgo tree is from the era of dinosaurs, but while the dinosaur has been extinguished, the modern ginkgo has not changed. After the atomic bomb in Hiroshima, the ginkgo was the first tree that came up. It’s amazing.

— Koji Nakanishi, Professor, Columbia University

Stratification

Stratification refers to artificially reproducing the moist, cool conditions some seeds need in order to germinate.

A few of the seeds I simply cleaned and tossed into an old glass spice jar, then stored in the refrigerator.

Some seeds went straight to the fridge.
Some seeds went straight to the fridge. | Source

For others, I opted to follow the basic procedure for stratification outlined in my Maryland Master Gardener Handbook, which entails placing the seeds in moist growing medium and refrigerating them 10 to 12 weeks (506). You know, a project.

Cleaning the seeds and pots before stratification.
Cleaning the seeds and pots before stratification. | Source

Before beginning, I made sure my pots and seeds were as clean as possible to prevent mold during germination.

I chose clay pots for their porosity, and scrubbed them in hot, sudsy water. Then I set them on clean towels to dry. (Plastic pots and baggies purportedly work well too.)

After reading a study about sterilizing seed for commercial nurseries, I also soaked the ginkgo seeds in 3% hydrogen peroxide for four hours. Then, before planting, I rinsed them with water.

Scarification

Because ginkgo seed coats are hard, I opted to scarify some of the seeds, too, just to see how it would impact their germination.

Using an emery board, I scratched the seed cases to allow moisture to more easily penetrate them.

Other methods for scarifying include rubbing seeds with sandpaper, nicking them with a knife, and soaking them in hot water or a concentration of sulfuric acid.

Filing the seed case with a fingernail file to weaken it is one method of scarification.
Filing the seed case with a fingernail file to weaken it is one method of scarification. | Source

The Growing Medium

Next, I prepared the growing medium.

The Master Gardener Handbook recommends peat moss, vermiculite or sand. The idea is that the medium should retain moisture without holding so much water that it causes rot.

I didn't have any of recommended mediums on hand per se, but I did have potting soil for cacti in the garage, a blend of peat, sand and perlite, so I used that, first filling the pots with the mixture, then adding the seeds and covering them with about a half-inch of the medium.

Seeds in growing medium.
Seeds in growing medium. | Source

Moisture & Cold

Then I watered the pots multiple times, allowing them to drain after each watering.

Because the potting medium was fine and flyaway, I found it easiest to pour the water into the pots with a cup.

Finally, I placed the pots in plastic bags, secured the bags with rubber bands and set them in the refrigerator.

All bagged up and ready for cold storage.
All bagged up and ready for cold storage. | Source

The Impatient Wait

There they will stay for about ten weeks, at which time I'll move them to the windowsill and wait impatiently for signs of life.

I'll keep you apprised of their progress.

I'm interested to see which seeds germinate the quickest. With any luck, I should have photos of some lovely green sprouts to share this spring.

A ginkgo seedling
A ginkgo seedling | Source

How Kew Gardens Starts Ginkgo from Seed

While researching Ginkgo biloba, I ran across an interesting article on the Kew Royal Botanic Garden website. According to the article, Kew starts its own ginkgo seed each year, first removing the flesh from collected fruit, then stratifying the seed by placing it in cold storage.

In the spring, the seed is sown in well-draining compost in one of Kew's greenhouses, and germinates in eight to ten weeks.

The following spring, when they're good-sized seedlings, the trees are planted in Kew's Arboretum Nursery field. At about two years old, the ginkgos are ready for planting in the gardens proper.

Featuring "The Old Lion" Ginkgo Tree at Kew

© 2017 Jill Spencer

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    • The Dirt Farmer profile image
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      Jill Spencer 7 days ago from United States

      OMG, Susanne. That's wild. Hello, neighbor!

    • profile image

      Susanne 7 days ago

      Wow. Just looked for info on ginkgo tree seeds while parked in front of St. Mary's College's row of Ginkgos! Yep, I'm here looking at a female ginkgo and wondering how to grow a tree from the seeds. Thanks.

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image
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      Jill Spencer 8 months ago from United States

      Hi Mary! Great to hear from you. Trees, of course, grow on their own here, too, but never where I want them to! lol I wonder if the trees where you live require stratification. Thanks for taking the time to comment. Best, Jill

      Dear in hộp giấy, I appreciate your comment. Cheers!

      Hi MsDora,

      You're right: I am excited about the project. I like to take part in positive, creative acts. Best to you. Stay well, Jill

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image
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      Jill Spencer 8 months ago from United States

      Hi Mary! Great to hear from you. Trees, of course, grow on their own here, too, but never where I want them to! lol I wonder if the trees where you live require stratification. Thanks for taking the time to comment. Best, Jill

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Isaac Weithers 8 months ago from The Caribbean

      Best to you with the Ginko. I can feel your excitement. At the same time, you teach us so much by sharing the process. Thank you.

    • inhopgiaygiare profile image

      in hộp giấy 8 months ago from Vi?t Nam

      Good deal!

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 8 months ago from Ontario, Canada

      I don't think I have seen one of these so I'll look out for them. I now know how to start trees from seeds. We seem to take it for granted here in Asia where we are right now as seeds seem to grow easily. This is just from my observation but your article made get interested.

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image
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      Jill Spencer 8 months ago from United States

      Thanks, Lee. I already have a gooseneck lamp out in the camper I could try that with. Good deal!

    • chefsref profile image

      Lee Raynor 8 months ago from Citra Florida

      Hey Jill

      You might try what I do for germinating seeds. Use the twisted fluorescent light bulbs rated as equivalent to 150 watts. One bulb costs from 8 to 10 dollars in the big box stores. One bulb would be enough light for maybe 4 - 3 inch pots, I just use a clip on goose neck lamp which is cheap at Wallmart

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image
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      Jill Spencer 8 months ago from United States

      Hi Lee!

      Hope you're keeping well in sunny Florida. It's about to snow here, and I can't wait.

      I hope this project works. I have a feeling the seeds will germinate, but getting them enough warmth and light prior to hardening the seedlings off outside will be a problem with just a windowsill.

      I hadn't read anything about the short shelf life of ginkgo seeds, but it makes sense given their size.

      Always good to hear from you, Lee.

      All the best, Jill

      Larry, I hope the tips are good ones! We'll have to see how it all turns out. (: Thanks. --Jill

    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 8 months ago from Oklahoma

      Great tips!

    • chefsref profile image

      Lee Raynor 8 months ago from Citra Florida

      Hey Jill

      I may have to try this again, prior tries all failed but I didn't stratify.

      I vaguely recall reading that Ginko seeds have a short shelf life too?

      I have a few other trees starting from seed, Jujube and Date. The climate has gotten warmer here in the 40 years I have lived here so I can grow some tough tropicals but anything that needs a chill is out of luck

      I really enjoy your hubs

      Lee

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image
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      Jill Spencer 8 months ago from United States

      Yes, I've read that but never taken ginkgo biloba as a supplement or eaten the leaves. What's their flavor like? Have you ever had the seeds? I understand they're very good but must be cooked carefully because they can be poisonous otherwise.

    • Perspycacious profile image

      Demas W Jasper 8 months ago from Today's America and The World Beyond

      We have them in our orchard garden. Leaves are good in salad and benefit memory.

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image
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      Jill Spencer 8 months ago from United States

      Hope you do (metaphorically) trip over one, billybuc. I read that they're on an endangered list because their existence in the wild can't be verified, but I see them quite a bit on campuses and in commercial landscaping. I think they grow in Zones 4-9. Thanks for commenting! Hope you have a healthy and prosperous New Year. --Jill

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 8 months ago from Olympia, WA

      I've heard of them, for sure, but I wouldn't recognize one if I tripped over its roots. Thanks for the primer on them. The trick is to find one here in Washington.