Turning into leaves of gold

Ginkgo leaves in Grand Coteau

Little evidence supports my illusions of a green thumb in and around my home. Even so, the lack of proof has never slowed my fascination with certain plants — especially orchids, maidenhair ferns, Gerber daisies, California poppies, hydrangeas and ginkgo trees, with the gingko tree being my favorite.
I first learned about the ginkgo tree the summer after my ninth grade at a horticulture camp at Mississippi State University.
Yes, you read that correctly. When I was 15, of my own volition, I spent a week at a “camp,” where we walked for miles and miles to look at specific plants (in July in Mississippi) and then went to botany and plant science classes the rest of the day.
I went to the camp, not out of any special interest at all, but because in a process I imagined to be as secret and ceremonial as a coronation, the Garden Club ladies from the small town where I grew up, selected one high school-aged girl to attend the camp each summer — and that year, they picked me.
With about 30 other kids about as interested in horticulture as I was, we trounced all over campus and in and out of laboratories. We saw rare plant specimens and learned about propagating, hybrids, splicing, canning fruit and winemaking.
On one tour, we stopped in front of a tree. I’m unsure why I remember almost every word the horticulturist said next, but I do.
“This tree is special. It is a living fossil, related to no other living plant. The ginkgo dates back 270 million years. Whatever killed the dinosaurs didn’t kill it. The trees originated in Asia, and the female trees produce nuts that are popular in some Asian dishes, but stinky from the tree. The tree’s fan-shaped leaves are distinct. It’s one of the slowest growing trees around, and it’s almost indestructible. In fact, some ginkgo trees actually survived the atomic blast that hit Hiroshima.”
Even though horticulture wasn’t my thing, the ginkgo tree was amazing.
A few years after the horticulture camp, I graduated high school and ended up attending Mississippi State as a student. Almost every day, I walked past the beautiful ginkgo tree I had learned about a few years earlier. As I passed it, I could almost hear the horticulturist saying, “This tree is special. It is a living fossil….”
However, when fall found the ginkgo tree and its beautiful leaves turned a shade of gold I had never known, my appreciation for the tree skyrocketed. In those golden days, the ginkgo became my tree. Like Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors, I dreamed of “Somewhere that’s green” and planting my very own ginkgo tree.
As it turns out, buying a gingko tree isn’t always easy. Once we moved to Louisiana in 2001, I began my quest for a ginkgo – at nurseries and online. I’m good at such searching, and I was rather relentless.
Even so, I came up empty handed every time. Time passed, but I never gave up on my ginkgo.
Nearly four years ago, my husband and I were struggling to decide where to send our daughters to school. I won’t go so far as to say it was the ginkgo tree in the circle drive in front of the Academy of the Sacred Heart that made the decision for us, but that tree certainly didn’t hurt. Learning that the Sacred Heart ginkgo was the oldest one in Louisiana was lagniappe. On our tour of the campus, I stood in front of the school, focusing on the ginkgo instead of the monumental live oaks.
About a year later, I attended Conge, the school’s spring festival. Away from the hubbub of the games and confetti eggs, the school hosts a plant sale. Various people donate plants. I was walking by the plant sale, on my way to get a glass of lemonade and happened to look down.
Much to my amazement and shock, I was looking at three little trees with fan-shaped leaves for sale.
I could barely speak and wondered if I was seeing clearly. I stuttered to the volunteer, who happened to be the Sacred Heart groundskeeper, “These are ginkgo trees?”
“Yes,” he said. “They’re $6 each.”
I could barely form words. “I’ll take them,” I said.
And I came home and planted my three waist-high gingko trees, remembering all the while that they’re one of the slowest growing trees on earth.
Even though my thumb isn’t very green, my ginkgos have survived. Almost every time I pass them, some little ginkgo-related memory sneaks in my head.
This late in the fall, all of the leaves have dropped from one of the trees and only a few remain on another. For some reason, the third tree still has 39 beautiful golden leaves clinging. I know that it’s just a matter of time until they fall too.
But come springtime, they’ll be back.

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2 thoughts on “Turning into leaves of gold”

  1. I love this one, Jan! Not sure if you remember this tidbit, but we had the “sister” ginkgo tree at MUW. As with most traditions at The W, it had a superstitious legend attached to it about how NOT to become an old maid: http://www.msfirstalumnae.com/ginkgotree.asp I can’t say the tree worked for me as I didn’t marry a guy from State, but that ginkgo tree was very special to me as well 🙂

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