NLI’s Legacy Tree Program featured tree of the month for February is a Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) at Burpee Museum of Natural History (737 N. Main St., Rockford, IL 61103) with a 151” circumference, 73.5’ crown spread, and standing at 56’ tall. Thank you to Rockford Park District for caring for it for all the year’s it has owned the property where the Gingko is located.

The ginkgo at Burpee Museum is probably the champion local ginkgo as it was one of the first of its kind to be planted in the region.  We know the tree predates the museum and was probably planted as part of the Manny Mansion. Burpee staff are researching the mansion to see if they can find old photos of the tree.

Ginkgoes have an amazing story as they are often considered a living fossil.  Fossils of ginkgo

Gingko on the grounds of Burpee Museum of Natural History. Photo: Alan Branhagen

leaves that look like those of the trees alive today have been aged at 200 million years old.  Fossils of ginkgo can be found all around the northern hemisphere, they survived the age of the dinosaurs but the trees did not fare well in the Ice Ages and were wiped out of North America and Europe by the glaciers. A small population of trees survived in remote mountain valleys of Zhejiang Province, China and were cultivated by humans for Millenia. Western people first met ginkgo in temple gardens in China and Japan where some of the trees are over 1,000 years old. Wild populations of the tree were unknown until relatively recent times. Burpee Museum is adding a Nature Nook outdoor experience near this tree, using it to not only teach the general biology of trees but also as a species that survived the Ice Ages.

Ginkgo trees are not modern flowering plants but more closely related to conifers. Trees are either male or female, the female trees producing seeds with a stinky coating so that they are rarely cultivated because of these stinky seeds that they drop in autumn. The seed inside is edible (when cooked and eaten in moderation) and are sold as “white nuts” in Asian markets.

Select male trees have been cloned and are now widely planted. As trees are basically living fossils, outliving all the creatures that were part of their web of life, they do not make good conservation trees because they support none of the web of life here. For that reason, we do not recommend their widespread planting but they are perfect for museums and public garden landscapes where their amazing history can be shared. Male trees have recently been documented reverting in part to female – suddenly producing seeds and making an unplanned mess.

The ginkgo is a survivor – relict of past ages.  A 225-year-old female tree in Shukkien Garden, Hiroshima, Japan near the epicenter of the atomic bomb dropped there, survived the blast. It was knocked into its current position and charred – but it re-leafed and was an important inspiration of survival. Green Legacy Hiroshima sends seeds from this now 300 year old tree around the world as ambassadors of a message of wishes of peace. Seed was sent to Kansas City where Powell Gardens grew them for planting at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum in Independence as symbol of peace and reconciliation.

For more information about NLI’s Legacy Tree Program and to find the nomination form visit:, call 815/964-6666 or email


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