Carol McPherson, North Carolina State Extension Master Gardener
I’m a North Carolina State Extension Master Gardener Intern Volunteer from Orange County, North Carolina. When I moved to Hillsborough five years ago, I went to the local nursery to buy a ginkgo tree, which I’d always longed to have. The saleswoman talked me out of it, saying that they were very slow-growing and pointing out the sparseness of the branches on the young trees in stock. How I wish now that I hadn’t been so easily dissuaded for there is literally no tree on earth with the history and characteristics of the gingko tree.
The word ginkgo comes from the Chinese word ‘xinying’ meaning silver apricot. This refers to the fruit of the female tree, not technically a ‘fruit’ in the botanical sense, by the way, but I’ll use that word today. It’s also called the maidenhair tree because its leaves are similar in shape to those of maidenhair ferns. Less flattering names are the ‘stinkbomb’ tree and adjectives such as “disgusting,” and “repulsive,” are used. But more about that later.
In the botanical world, there are only five living groups of seed plants, and ginkgo is one of them. And ginkgo is the only one that consists of only one species. It is utterly unique, not very obviously related to any living plant, but actually more similar to pines than to maples or oaks. Technically, the ginkgo is a gymnosperm, which means that that the seeds are naked—i.e., they are not enclosed within an ovary. Gymnosperm seeds generally develop on the surface of a scale or leaf, or they are modified to form cones. In the ginkgo, they develop on short stalks, each supporting a pair of tiny green orbs called ovules.
The Thrilling Reproductive Cycle of Ginkgoes
It is the reproductive cycle of ginkgo trees that is especially thrilling. Think about a tree being fertilized by swimming sperm… now how unusual is THAT?
I’m going to borrow some descriptions here from Nancy Ross Hugo, author of Seeing Trees. She describes how each of the two tiny ovules secretes a droplet of sticky fluid that sits on the surface, grabs the pollen as it floats by on the breeze, and brings it into the female cells. Nothing happens for a couple of months—the pollen is carefully stored within the female tissue. When the time for fertilization arrives, the ovules grow a pollen chamber and fill it with fluid. The pollen grain then extends a tube into that chamber and releases two swimming sperm cells (complete with 1000 flagella) into the fluid. The sperm cells swim toward the narrow entrance to the egg cells, and may the best man win—only one makes its way through the portal, where it fuses with the egg and fertilizes it. The author notes that you can actually see a YouTube video of this primordial pulsing of the ginkgo sperm in the pollen chamber. I was able to find it quite easily online and you could clearly see the whirlpools created by the swimming sperm. Among woody trees, only the tropical, ancient cycads are fertilized by swimming sperm. Interestingly enough, this fertilization miracle may also occur within unripe fruit that has fallen to the ground, so don’t be too quick to kick aside any fruits littering the sidewalk.
Speaking of ginkgo fruits littering the sidewalk, now we come to the origin of the ginkgo’s nickname, the stinkbomb tree. When the female fruits begin to decay, they are remarkably stinky. Some people compare the smell to rancid butter, but the fruits contain large amounts of butyric acid, which is the primary unpleasant odor of vomit. Virtually no animal today eats the rotting fruit, but it is likely that in the Jurassic period, carrion-eating dinosaurs probably helped to distribute the seeds. Because of the unpleasant odor, most nurseries will only sell and plant male trees. But that, too, has some disadvantages. The pollen from male gingko trees is highly allergenic, rating a 7 out of 10 on the allergy rating scale. Female trees do not produce pollen. Also, planting only male trees means that all the trees are cloned, thus reducing the genetic diversity that keeps a species healthy and resilient.
Ginkgoes can grow to be quite large, normally reaching an adult height of (65–100 feet). The tree has an angular crown and long, somewhat erratic branches. The leaves are unmistakable—they are shaped like a fan and somewhat leathery. Even the vein structure in the leaves is unlike any other tree. Two parallel veins enter each blade from the point of attachment of the long leafstalk and fork repeatedly in two toward the leaf edges. Most leaves are divided into two lobes by a central notch, thus the name “biloba”. The autumn foliage of gingkos can take your breath away. In mid-October an entire tree will go from green to gold in a day or two. And again, in mid-November, the tree will drop all its leaves in a single day! I’ve read that if there has been a frost the night before the leaves fall, you can hear them tinkle as they land on each other below the tree.
Ginkgoes are surprisingly hardy. They are often planted in cities, where they don’t mind having their roots compacted under sidewalks, and where they shrug off air pollution as though it doesn’t exist. After all, they evolved during a tumultuous time for our planet, and they had to learn to thrive despite the sooty, sulphurous air of erupting volcanoes. Ginkgoes are also remarkably insect-resistant. In fact, there is almost no insect that even eat ginkgo leaves. Again, these trees evolved long before today’s leaf-eating insects were around. Ginkgoes are also resistant to temperature extremes and to wind.
So as I describe the wonders of this dinosaur-distributed, volcanic air-breathing, swimming sperm fertilized, living fossil (the gingko), I again kick myself for not purchasing that ginkgo tree five years ago. Yes, it was scrawny, but it would be five years older and five years bigger today. The tree is a wonder of nature, the only living bridge between the prehistoric plants of the ancient past and our modern plants of today. I do wish I had one of my own.
We end with a portion of a poem from Howard Nemerov, called The Consent. It was published in a book called The Western Approaches published in 1975.
A few weeks back I was on the phone finalizing some of my plans for my magical vacation to Walt Disney World where I would be attending the EPCOT International Flower and Garden Festival. The cast member on the other end of the line was a really great guy. He then asked me if I had ever been to the Flower and Garden Festival before. I told him not as a guest, but mainly as a former cast member. He asked what I did when I was a cast member and I told him Horticulture at EPCOT and Downtown Disney.
The cast member, Guy, we will call him, asked me what I do now, what I learned and what some of my favorite parts of doing horticulture and taking care of the landscapes at EPCOT were. I told him I learned a lot from my experience, but that what I was taught in school was the science of environmental horticulture. The way Disney does horticulture is not only a science but it also is an art form, what I call “entertainment horticulture.” I learned that the way we manage landscapes can vary greatly depending on the nature of the landscape. After all, horticulture is where science meets art.
I shared with him some of the Disney horticulture “magic” and things I learned while part of Disney horticulture which if you read on, I will share some of that with you. Suffice it to say, a lot of fairies use a lot of pixie dust to make the magic happen! I do my best to keep some of the magic alive in my garden today and I wanted to share two things with you today. First the “magic” of Disney’s horticulture and how you can incorporate that into your garden and then the 2015 EPCOT International Flower and garden Festival!
Disney does a fantastic job with roses! One of my favorite varieties is the Knockout rose. They are so easy to maintain! Shear them to prune, and they just keep re-blooming. Although generous amounts of fertilizer and mulch, I mean pixie dust, also help the process along.
They use a variety of warm and cool season flowers to help keep the park fresh all year long. Although the climate in Florida allows for year-round gardening, they do have a rotation for plant material. Every eight weeks, each bed is replanted with new annuals. There are also four season at Walt Disney World for their beds. At Christmas you notice red poinsettias, and red, pink, and white impatiens. In the spring and fall, those get replaced with red, pink, white, and a little purple pentas and red geraniums, which need deadheading on a frequent basis! In the summer Disney plants a lot of caladium. I mean a LOT! We used the standard colors of reds and pinks, but whites were especially popular under the shade of trees. The contrast created by a bed planted with white caladium and a beautiful magnolia tree with its deep green foliage had a remarkable way of brightening up that space and drawing you in!
Disney has a different color theme for each country in EPCOT’s World Showcase as well. For example, Mexico uses warm colors and a more natural looking landscape. Norway uses pastels and white. China is very formal and has little in the way of annuals. Germany uses reds, Italy uses all colors except yellow. The AA as cast members call it, the American Adventure to guests, use…? Red, white, and blue, you guessed it. France uses pastels, and Canada and UK can use pretty much any color in the rainbow. Consider a theme for your garden that consists of two or three colors and stick with that. Too many colors can overwhelm the eye and take away from the dramatic effect of the garden. Use different textures instead if you want to create something more visually appealing.
Disney is also known for the use of hanging baskets and pots. Italy, for example, has pots. Every park has hanging baskets. When you plant your pots or baskets, plant your outside row of flowers on a 45 degree angle facing you, which creates a fuller look as baskets and pots fill in and the flowers face you rather than face the sky where you will be less able to see the full effect of the color.
Where you and I have limited financial resources, we know we are going to buy a plant for an entire season. Knowing it may grow to 12 inches, you and I might buy a four pack and plant them on 6 inch centers, throw some fertilizer down, apply a good three inches of mulch and call it good. Disney knows the plants are not going to be in the landscape long enough to mature. Instead they buy a larger plant and plant the plants closer together, apply some fertilizer, mulch, and viola, an instantly mature full looking landscape. This approach works well for the art form that is Disney’s horticulture but for the average landscape is both economically and environmentally irresponsible.
Of course, Disney is rumored to have no weeds. I can assure you, this is absolutely positively 100% true! I know, because I pulled every weed you could find. A little Disney secret, err, magic is proper mulching techniques greatly helped keep weeds down! I’d like to point out; Disney used ORGANIC mulch- pine needles, chipped wood, etc. No rock mulch to be found on Disney property. Why? Because of how bad it is for the environment, and it simply is not “show quality.”
So now that you know some of the magic, what about the EPCOT Flower and Garden Festival? I spent some time walking around EPCOT. It’s a sight to behold as EPCOT is filled with millions of blooms and over 100 topiaries! This year the theme was “EPCOT Fresh” and they incorporated edibles into the landscape.
EPCOT always looks beautiful, but after experiencing the Flower and Garden Festival, EPCOT feels insipid when the festival ends and the park’s landscapes return to normal. What makes the festival so grand isn’t just the colorful flowers planted in beds throughout Future World around the World Showcase, but also the topiary creations which bring your favorite Disney Characters to life (mine is Peter Pan) as well as the tours, horticulture classes, and presentations offered by many knowledgeable and well respected individuals in the hort industry.
Over in Garden Town gardening programs are offered every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from 11-4. Programs feature information provided from Disney Gardeners, Great American Gardeners, and to the credit of Disney, University of Florida Master Gardeners and Extension Agents from Land Grant Universities who provide research based gardening solutions for your life in the form of latest trends in home gardening, techniques to help you be a successful gardener, as well as some of the Disney Horticulture secrets with some very fun and creative hands on activities that will engage gardeners of all ages.
Other things that make this festival so wonderful is that is really truly is designed for all ages. Young children can enjoy the butterfly garden, the cactus garden that recreates radiator springs, mini gardens all which tell a story, and other kid-friendly activities all throughout EPCOT. Adults; as well as all the learning, there is music from many artists, including the Village People. (Tony, that’s for you.) Cooking and food demonstrations on how to cook what you grow. (Seriously, what do I do with this Kohlrabi? Nasturtium- do you eat that? Why is there and orchid flower on my plate?) As well as many amazing foods and drinks to try, all inspired by the fruits, flowers, and veggies you grow in the garden!
Rich Guggenheim Extension Coordinator Horticulture/4-H Youth Development
Colorado State University
In recognition of this year’s National Seed Swap Day, January 31st, 2015, let’s consider the time-honored tradition of sharing seeds at such events because a Seed Swap has vast benefits for gardeners everywhere. Our nation’s third President, Thomas Jefferson, has long been known for his glorious gardens at Monticello with over three hundred varieties of more than ninety different plants. Jefferson sought plants and treasured seeds from all over the world and always shared his bounty and his seeds with his friends but thousands of those varieties of fruits, vegetables, herbs, and flowers have been lost in recent times to the growth, popularity and commercial availability of hybrid seeds.
Saving Seeds, an Ancient Tradition
Fortunately, long before organized seed exchanges were held, individuals across time and around the globe would harvest, save, and share their seeds. In some cultures, seeds were valued as if they were money, bartered with, traded, and collected. Seeds would be passed down from generation to generation, from one gardener to another. What gardener does not have at least one variety of produce or one favorite flower that he or she grows every year, having been grown by their own grandparent decades ago? Many historic varieties have been preserved in this fashion and are still grown today because someone, at some time, decided to save and share those seeds.
Our Founding Fathers Shared Seeds…
Today, the average home gardener can share their neighbor’s great uncle’s award-winning tomato seed and have the opportunity to purchase (or share!) the very same variety of beautiful black Hollyhock that Thomas Jefferson grew at Monticello. Today the home gardener can either choose to spend a small fortune amassing seeds or plants commercially purchased each year for that season’s garden, or with a little planning, patience and effort; can save the previous season’s seeds for planting the next year. The first seed swap days allowed local gardeners to trade their abundance of a particular seed for other kinds that other gardeners had in their own possession. Seed swaps have begun to sprout up all over the country and enable gardeners of all ages and experience-levels to meet, share seeds (and sometimes plants), advice and ideas, stories, and fellowship.
Why Save Seeds?
Today most organized seed swaps include seeds native to the area/zone, edibles (fruit and vegetable,) herbs, exotics, annuals, perennials and woody trees and shrubs. Seeds saved and shared are often open-pollinated and heirloom variety, which produce offspring identical to the parent plant (seed.) Seeds saved from a hybrid plant may show traits like its parents, but hybrid varieties do not always promise offspring like the parent as the hybrid is a genetic mingling of two different parent plants and may grow offspring differing in taste, color and growth habit. Bulbs and cuttings may also be shared. Gardeners are encouraged to bring their surplus, highly flavored and/or high-yielding/good-producing seeds to share and exchange with others.
In an age when “Going Green!” is all the rage, seed swaps are gaining popularity for good reason. Seed swapping continues to promote biodiversity, cultural history, and, in essence, recycling. Gardeners rid themselves of excess seeds without wasting and leave the event(s) able to try many new varieties inexpensively and resourcefully. Jefferson wrote that, “the greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add a useful plant to its culture,” and every year the National Seed Swap Day embodies both Jefferson’s legacy of seed sharing and his promotion of gardening throughout the Country. Thinking of hosting your own seed swap event? Find more information here: www.southernexposure.com/how-to-host-a-seed-swap-ezp-146.html
Submitted by Lois Versaw (Extension Master Gardener Intern at University of Nebraska-Lincoln)
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