The area’s ginkgo trees will soon lose what remains of their glorious golden crowns. And it will happen in a single day.
“Magical” is the word we would use, after witnessing it one November on Cumberland Street. The leaves descended in a manner not unlike a steady snowfall, blanketing the street, sidewalks and cars below in golden splendor.
The date of the ginkgo leaf drop is only as predictable as the weather, so don’t set your clock by it. But the air temperature is the catalyst. As we write this, the National Weather Service is forecasting overnight lows of 28 degrees Fahrenheit or lower over the next few days. Once temperatures drop into that hard freeze territory and stay there for more than a few hours, the process begins. The Atlantic explained in 2017 that the cold triggers the formation of protective scars on the leaves’ stems, causing them to detach. The scarring occurs gradually for other deciduous trees, but for ginkgos, it happens all at once.
Some years, the freeze hits before the leaves take on their golden hue. That was the case in 2019, but it still produced some lovely photos.
— bJüstin (@bJustin) November 13, 2019
— David Machledt (@machledtDC) November 13, 2019
Their synchronized leaf drop isn’t the only thing that’s unique about ginkgo trees. During a recent visit to the U.S. Botanic Garden, we were reminded that ginkgo biloba is a living fossil; the sole surviving species of a genus that once spanned the globe. Today’s ginkgos are native to China but have spread again over the centuries thanks to humans who like the color, the fan-shaped leaves, and even the stinky fruit, which to this day is believed to have medicinal properties.
The smell has been compared to dog poop and vomit. Those who’d rather not dodge the stink bombs have been advised over the years to plant the male trees, but Casey Trees says that doesn’t always work. Individual branches can change from male to female.
To inhibit the fruit’s development, DDOT sprays ginkgo street trees each spring with a food-safe chemical normally used to keep potatoes from sprouting after harvest. On Cumberland and Appleton Streets, we can report with confidence that the spray doesn’t have the greatest of success rates, so some years there’s a bumper crop of rotting fruit underfoot.
But we’d like to argue that the payoff – from the first appearance of the leaves’ golden coloring to the last ginkgo leaf hitting the ground – is worth it.
Where to view the leaf dump or its aftermath: Usually, Appleton and Cumberland Streets are great viewing spots. But windy and rainy conditions over the past few weeks have already stripped their towering ginkgos of most of their leaves. We suggest using Casey Trees’ fall colors map to find an alternative spot.