Even though DC is already in peak foliage, many ginkgo tree leaves are just turning or have yet to turn from green to gold. In DC, National Arboretum horticulturist Joseph Meny suggests starting to look out for the gorgeous, fan-shaped yellow leaves the week of November 6.
Once the leaves turn, it’s usually only a matter of days until all the leaves drop. But the leaves are not the only thing for which ginkgos are known. Some trees also have a very distinctive aroma. That’s not the leaves, but from the dropped seeds of female ginkgo trees. According to Meny, the butyric acid in the outer seed coat causes the smell, which has been compared to dirty gym socks, dog poop, vomit, or rancid butter. Because ginkgo trees are dioecious, there are both male and female plants; the male ones don’t produce the foul-smelling seeds.
Ginkgo trees are one of the oldest living tree species in the world and are native to China. There are many ginkgo trees throughout the National Arboretum, including several within walking distance of the visitor parking lot inside the R Street entrance, one inside the Bonsai Museum, and a few in the meadow near the National Capitol Columns. Others are on the east side of the arboretum, in the Asian Collections and the Gotelli Conifer Collection. According to Meny, some of the ginkgo trees in the conifer collection have already started to turn.
Other places to spot ginkgo trees in DC include on Swann Street, NW; Warren Street, NE; Orleans Place, NE; and around Sheridan Circle.
Blandy Experimental Farm, about an hour-and-a-half drive from DC, features an entire ginkgo grove with 336 trees, now in peak foliage. T’ai Roulston is a curator at Blandy Experimental Farm, also the State Arboretum of Virginia, and says though the seed coatings produce an odor that is “extremely fragrant and extremely unpleasant,” that usually doesn’t deter visitors from exploring the grove of magnificent trees. The duration of a ginkgo’s peak foliage depends on the temperature and wind, but Roulston suspects the leaves will stick around for at least another week.