Grow ginkgo from seed

Just think: When you stick those ginkgo biloba seeds into the soil to germinate, you’ll be starting trees that trace their “roots” back 270 million years, making them among the oldest living species on the planet.

They live a long time too: there’s one in Asia that is estimated to be 3,000 years old. Ginkgo is a large tree so make sure you have the room for it. Hopefully you do because this tree is a stunner.

Germinating ginkgo biloba seeds, while fun and interesting, requires lots of patience. It won’t be sexually mature until it is 30 years of age. At that time it will produce seeds.

Hey, think of it this way: your kids can have the benefit of your labor! If you want to kick start the process, skip the germination and purchase a tree that’s already growing. You can do that here.

What you’ll need to germinate ginkgo biloba seeds

  • Latex or rubber gloves
  • Peat moss
  • Plastic sandwich bag that seals
  • Sandpaper
  • Bowls
  • 4-inch planting pot
  • Coarse sand, coarse sand and perlite or Foxfarm Ocean Forest Potting Soil
  • Household bleach
  • Tea strainer or sieve, optional
  • Paper towels

Pour some peat moss into a bucket and add a small amount of water. You might want to put on a pair of latex gloves because you need to mix this concoction with your hands. Your aim here is to be able to form a ball of peat that will hold its shape. You will need two handfuls of moist peat so keep adding peat and water until you get there.

Put the two handfuls of the peat into a plastic sandwich bag — the type with a zip-lock closure. Drop five ginkgo seeds into the bag, close it and set it aside in an area that remains around 68 degrees Fahrenheit and it won’t be disturbed.

Keep checking it to ensure that the peat remains barely moist and, after one to two months, put the bags of ginko biloba seeds in the refrigerator and allow them to remain there for another one to two months. This process is known as “stratification.” Basically, it imitates what the seeds would go through in nature.

When the stratification period is over, remove the ginko biloba seeds from the bag and lightly sand the seed coat — not too much, just enough to allow moisture to penetrate. Drop them into a bowl of water and let them sit for 24 hours.

The next day, fill a 4-inch planting pot with coarse sand, or a mixture of equal parts of coarse sand and perlite. If you’re up for trying something else, I highly recommend Foxfarm Ocean Forest Potting Soil.

Run water over whichever medium you’ve chosen until it’s drenched and water drains from the bottom of the pot. Set it aside to drain completely while you sterilize the seeds.

Make a solution of 9 parts of water and 1 part of household bleach and toss the ginko biloba seeds into a bowl of the solution. Allow them to sit in it for about 10 minutes and then remove them and rinse with clear water (a colander comes in handy here). Use paper towels to blot them dry.

Plant the ginkgo seeds very shallow – just barely cover them with sand. Place the pots in a bright area but out of direct sun, indoors, keep the soil moist but not wet and your ginkgo biloba seeds should germinate within three weeks.

If you prefer, you can plant the seeds outdoors, without stratification, in fall and “good germination should take place in spring,” according to Michael A. Dirr and Charles W. Heuser, Jr. in The Reference Manual of Woody Plant Propagation (the bible for plant propagators and a book I highly recommend).

If you decide to germinate with stratification, wait until there is absolutely no danger of frost before hardening the seedlings off and then planting in spring.

Laitr Keiows, CC BY-SA 3.0 from Wikimedia Commons

Germination of fresh ginko biloba seed

If you’ll be gathering seeds from an existing tree instead of purchasing them you’ll need one more piece of equipment, a bucket, so add it to the list above.

The first thing you need to know is that the soft outer layer that surrounds the seed is disgustingly smelly when it decays. Not only that, but touching it may cause dermatitis and even nausea, so wear latex or rubber gloves at all times when working with ginkgo seeds. Even the seed itself may retain traces of a substance that causes the same skin problems as poison oak and ivy. At least in some people (got an email from someone saying he never has a problem).

Fill a bucket with water, submerge the fruit and squeeze the seeds from it. Wash each seed and then dry them. The seeds are now ready to be stratified and planted, as outlined above.

Full disclosure: I get commissions from purchases made through links in this post and we donate a portion of these commissions to Kiva. I do not receive any of the products I recommend for free — everything I refer you to are products that I purchased and use in my own library and garden.

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e360: Most of us know ginkgo from its very distinctive, fan-shaped leaves, and also from its very distinctive smell. What is with the smell?

Crane: It’s the outer part of the seed that produces the smell, and it smells, to put it bluntly, like vomit. More than likely, it reflects some sort of adaptation or modification in its dispersal biology. Probably either now or in the past the smell has been attractive to animals. You hear stories of dogs, for example, eating ginkgo seeds — sometimes with not a terribly happy outcome in that they don’t feel so good afterward. But it must be part of a dispersal system. The interesting question is, are the things that adapted to disperse it still around? Or are they extinct?

There’s this wonderful idea that Janzen and Martin published about how many neo-tropical fruits don’t appear to have any dispersers in the contemporary fauna. And their idea was that as many large mammals went extinct about 10,000 years ago, many plants actually lost their most important dispersal agents. So in a sense, the plants have continued to live on, while the dispersers themselves have already gone extinct.
e360: So their theory would say that the ginkgo smell would have attracted dinosaurs to eat it?
Crane: Yes, or more likely some mammals that died out much more recently. But the idea is that the tree now could be out of phase with its dispersal agents. There are records of the seeds being eaten by badgers and so on, and as I talk to people it’s clear that the seeds do still move around. So something’s moving them. And you know, the seeds are very attractive — once that smell’s gone, they look a bit like a pistachio. And they have a nice nutritious meat in them, so they would attract animals like squirrels.
e360: When are the seeds on the ground? Is that the late fall?

Crane: They’re usually on the ground in the late fall here in temperate North America. So the trees are dropping their seeds in late November, December. And then often, what saves us from the smell is that they all freeze.

e360: When was the ginkgo first cultivated by humans?
Crane: Our best estimate is about 1,000 years ago in China, which is somewhat late for the cultivation of many plants in China. There’s a lot of Chinese literature from before 1,000 years ago, and it doesn’t mention ginkgo, while it does mention a lot of other plants. The evidence points to the fact that ginkgo was probably always a rather rare tree, and that it first attracted the attention of people about a thousand years ago. Probably originally as a nut — a rather unusual nut tree. And then it was moved around and grown for its nuts in China, before eventually — maybe in the 14th or 15th centuries — making its way up the coastal trade routes into Korea and Japan.
e360: And how and when did it appear in the West?
Crane: The first Westerner to encounter ginkgo — or at least the first Westerner to encounter it and write about it — was Engelbert Kaempfer, who was with the Dutch East India Company at their trading station in southern Japan in 1692. When he returned, he wrote his account of his time in Japan. He is the one who first uses the word in the Western literature — ginkgo — and he provides an illustration of it. But probably living plants weren’t introduced into Europe until a few decades after that — perhaps in the 1730s, but I think more likely in the 1750s.
e360: Ginkgoes have long been valued for their healing properties, their medicinal properties, particularly for helping memory. And we see today ginkgo being sold pretty widely in health food stores. Did the medicinal use of ginkgo emerge in China, and if so, how recent is its move to the West?
Crane: That’s a very interesting question, because if you look and see how ginkgo is used medicinally in China, it’s mainly the seeds that are used. Yet, the Ginkgo biloba that you buy in health food stores here is an extract of the leaves. And this is pretty much a Western phenomenon. So this is a use that we’ve invented for it in the West, rather than a use that has come to us from China. The medicinal uses in the East and the supposed medicinal uses in the West have gone in different directions, using two different parts of the plant — mainly the seeds in the East, and mainly the leaves in the West.

e360: Are there any scientific studies that looked at the efficacy of the medicinal properties, like for memory enhancement — either for the leaves or the seeds?
Crane: The most work’s been done on the leaves in the West. And I think it’s true to say the results are equivocal. I don’t think there’s really strong evidence for its efficacy, but on the other hand, there are conflicting results. There’s some evidence that it’s helpful in some ways, but the large-scale trials that we expect from our drugs these days have been unable to be really definitive about that. It’s a bit of an enigma in that respect — it’s difficult to prove its value.
e360: You write in the book about how the ginkgo’s resilience has enabled it to become quite a popular street tree — it can take a lot of abuse. What makes the ginkgo so resilient as a tree?
Crane: It’s hard to put a finger on what exactly does it. But the leaves are particularly unattractive to pests, so it doesn’t suffer from the pest problems that some trees do. And it seems to survive in a street setting: its roots aren’t getting much oxygen, they’re getting a lot of salt and goodness knows what else is getting poured on them, and it seems relatively resistant to those problems. So it’s just a good old tough tree, and it is incredibly widely planted.

e360: How widely, and in what places is it most common?
Crane: Well, it’s particularly widespread in the East: you see it all over Tokyo, you see it all over Seoul. But you also see it all over Manhattan. Once you start to recognize ginkgo trees in the urban landscape, you start to see them everywhere.

This is the guide to share our experience on how to germinate Ginkgo biloba seeds. Ginkgo seeds are like plums, but the juicy part of the fruit has such unpleasant smell that the specimens found in cities are almost all males so they don’t produce any seeds. The seed itself is the nut inside the juicy fruit.

Ginkgo biloba seeds

In previous years we tested the efficiency of stratification in Ginkgo seeds. We put a group in the fridge and sown other one right after seed collection (in Autumn). We found out that the same rate of germination happen in both groups, so the refrigerator cold was “so good” breaking the dormancy as the natural winter cold. Ginkgo seeds are very reliable and since you follow some simple steps we explain next you can expect that almost all seeds will germinate.

Here is how to do it:

1. Fill the pots and place the seeds

We usually use small pots to sow Ginkgo seeds. We use trays for smaller seeds, but for ginkgo and other big seeds we sow individually or some seeds for pot. We fill 3/4 of the pot with a generic potting soil. Something that retains humidity but drains well and dispose the seeds in it as shown in the pictures below

Sowing several seeds in each pot Place the seeds in each pot

2. Cover the seeds

Slightly cover the seeds with a thin layer of soil, just to protect them and keep the humidity around the seeds.

Slightly cover the seeds Spread our dear plants:

  • Ginkgo Seed Propagation Guide – How To Plant Ginkgo Seeds

    One of our oldest plant species, Ginkgo biloba can be propagated from cuttings, grafting or seed. The first two methods result in plants much quicker, but the process of growing ginkgo trees from seed is an experience not to be missed. The trees don’t technically produce a seed, but females develop fruit which are pollinated by male trees. You need to get your hands on an ovule, or naked seed, from the fruit for ginkgo seed propagation. Continue reading for tips on how to plant ginkgo seeds.

    Ginkgo Seed Propagation

    Ginkgo trees have elegant, unique leaves and are the source of important eastern medicine. Can you grow ginkgo trees from seed? You can, but you need to provide certain conditions to ensure germination.

    First, you need to source a female plant and gather some fruit. To increase the chances of success, acquire several. They look a bit like a small yellowish plum and, when ripe, will litter the ground around a mature female tree in October to November.

    Wear gloves as you pick them up because the fleshy exterior causes contact dermatitis. Overly ripe ovules will have a very bad odor but can still be used. Inside the pulpy exterior is a nut-like shell. You will need to clean off the pulp to get to this “seed.”

    Place seeds in baggies with a bit of moist peat moss and store somewhere warm, but not hot, for six weeks.

    Tips on Germinating Ginkgo Seeds

    Ginkgo trees and their dropped fruit experience true winters where they are native. That means your seeds need to have the same cold exposure. After seeds have sat in the bags for the allotted time, move them to the refrigerator for at least three months. This stratification process will allow dormancy in the embryo to break so germination can occur. You can also moisten sand and pot up the seeds, placing the containers outside for winter.

    Once the allotted time has elapsed, remove the seeds and rub them with sandpaper or an emery board. Some growers recommend soaking the seed in a 3% solution of hydrogen peroxide but this is not necessary if you use clean, sterile pots and medium.

    How to Plant Ginkgo Seeds

    Use either moistened horticultural sand or a sand and perlite mixture. Other recommendations are peat moss or vermiculite.

    Scrub your pots and fill them with pre-moistened medium. Plant seeds shallowly, until just covered. Cover the container with a clear plastic bag and place in a warm location.

    Keep the medium moderately moist. Expect germination in 30 to 60 days. Remove the bags once you see sprouts.

    It can take up to 20 years for your little tree to fruit on its own, but it will make a lovely houseplant for several years before you transplant it outdoors to grow to maturity.

    To get the best rates of germination these seeds need to undergo a period of pre-treatment. This is not difficult to do. Without pre-treatment your results may be disappointing.
    Prepare a mix of approx 60/40 of damp peat and sand. This mix must be moist but not wet enough to be able to squeeze water from it. If the mix is too wet your seeds may drown and die. Mix into the peat/sand your seeds and place into a ziplock freezer bag that has that days date upon it. Close the bag and put into a warm place at 15-20 Celsius (room temperature is fine) for approx 4 weeks.
    Next the bag needs to be placed into the fridge (4 Celsius) for 8 weeks. During both the warm and cold pre-treatments it is important that the peat/sand mix does not dry out. If it does the treatment will be ineffective. If it is looking a little dry just add a splash of water and mix up the contents of the bag. At the end of the 12 weeks of pre-treatment the seeds are ready to sow.
    When the dormancy has been broken down the seed will begin to split and produce a root. This may begin to happen even at the low temperatures found within a fridge, so please check them regularly.
    Sow your seeds in pots that are at least 10 cm deep filled with a good quality potting compost. Cover the seeds with 1 cm or so of loose compost. Keep them at room temperature. Initial growth is quite rapid and they quickly produce a plant 10-25 cm in height. Plants should be placed outdoors in early summer and can be left outside over the following winter.
    ​During periods of hard frost it would be best to protect the pots containing the roots of your young trees. Once they are finally planted in the ground, they are hardy down to at least -35 Celsius.
    Place the pots in a cold frame or indoors in a light place but not in full sun. Water only when necessary, aim to keep the soil moist, not wet. Never let the roots dry out or let them stand in water. Put the seedlings outside in early summer (not in full sun initially) Plant them in permanent position after about 2 years or so.
    Sowing outside in the ground
    The best sowing time is March-May. Seeds should first be pre-treated as outlined above. Protect from squirrels, mice edible dormice etc. Don’t sow in the height of summer as a secondary dormancy will be induced and the seeds will not germinate until the following year. Transplant when they are large enough, but only between November and March.

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