Home News and Features When the Ginkgo Tree Drops Its Leaves

When the Ginkgo Tree Drops Its Leaves

The Barre Street gingko in its full autumn dress. Photo by Cassandra Hemenway.
When the leaves start to fall from the giant ginkgo tree on Barre Street, Barb Baird calls down her list. There’s a fair number of people who want to see the phenomenon, and they rely on the annual phone call from Baird to alert them. 

Baird used to call the preschool down the street, too. They would walk their charges up to number 143, where the kiddos would romp under the tree as it rained yellow, stuffing the fan-shaped leaves into their pockets, lying on the ground looking up at the marvel of drifting gold backed by blue sky, and generally do the things the adults want to do, but don’t.

When the gingko drops its leaves they rain down in spiraling goldenrod fans, creating an ever-deepening yellow circle around the tree. It’s not like what maples and birches do, dropping slowly, over time. You can stand under a ginkgo tree and hear the thousands of leaves as they break from twigs above — and then again as they softly land — and surround yourself in the ephemeral flurry.

This year, the Barre Street ginkgo — the second largest in the state — dropped its leaves on Oct. 27.

“It wasn’t the grand old dropping, but the majority of them are off,” reported Mariann Tilton, firm administrator at the tax service Fothergill Segale & Valley, which owns the stately Federal-style brick building and the land on which the ginkgo grows.

Why the single-day leaf drop? According to the Atlantic in its Nov. 2017 article “The Great Ginkgo Leaf Dump is Here:” “In the autumn, deciduous trees form a scar between their leaves and stems to protect themselves from diseases and winter’s coming chill. Most flowering trees, like oaks and maples, form the scar at different rates, in different parts of the tree, over the course of weeks. Their leaves then fall off individually. But ginkgoes form the scar across all their stems at once. The first hard frost finishes severing every leaf, and they rain to the ground in unison.”

There are a lot of reasons to love a ginkgo. The Ecological Society of America names a few: “Its tall branches bring welcome summer shade, the fans of its leaves turn a lovely gold in the fall, it copes well with city pollution, lives for thousands of years, and isn’t prone to disease or insect infestation.” Ginkgo leaves and seeds have been used in medicine throughout the world; and the seeds (or nuts) are edible. They are survivors: The trees not only survived near extinction in the Pleistocene age, six of them were among the few living things to survive the 1945 nuclear bombing of Hiroshima within close range of the blast site. 

John Snell — chair of the Montpelier’s Tree Board — said most of the ginkgoes planted around Montpelier are male, mainly because the fruits on the female emit a rather powerful odor. He himself has a female ginkgo in his yard — planted by him from seed — and he shares the nuts with a friend who eats them.

Snell said the Barre Street ginkgo was likely planted around 1870, “based on when others were being planted around the country, but we don’t know,” he said.

Baird, the office manager at the Central Vermont Solid Waste Management District, works (and used to live) next door to the ginkgo. When she lived in the apartment on the third floor of the district offices, she saw some things. At night, in fall, the leaves would glow, she said. “They’re that yellow.”

“What’s interesting to me when it’s actually dropping its leaves is how people react,” Baird said. “Some people literally stop traffic to be a part of it, other people will walk right through it (and not notice).”

Baird said some nights, sitting on her porch, she’d see people walking home from bars “or whatever” — and they’d stop to hug the ginkgo tree. And it wasn’t just people you would imagine might hug a tree, but “all kinds of people.”

“It’s a very beloved tree,” she said.

Fothergill Segale & Valley — and CVSWMD — separately take bets on which day the leaves will fall. (This year the accounting firm’s Sara Meyers won). The wisdom goes: it happens after the first full moon in October, and after the first hard frost.

Baird has been monitoring the tree for 20 years, and in all that time, she’s noted the generosity of the accountants next door.

“We are all so grateful to Fothergill Segale and Valley for letting us romp on their lawn,” she said. 

The tree caught the attention of author Kevin Martin. In October, Peter Randall Publishing released “Big Trees of Northern New England” by Martin, who mentioned the ginkgo in his book. Look for a review in The Bridge in coming weeks.

Cassandra Hemenway is the managing editor of The Bridge, and also worked for 10 years at the Central Vermont Solid Waste Management District, where she bet on — but never won — the date the ginkgo would lose its leaves. She also served on Montpelier’s Tree Board for a short time before the pandemic.