Fall was a bit late this year, but it arrived. And if you are fortunate enough to work along (or just walk along) 2nd Avenue North in Downtown Birmingham, you’ve probably been looking forward to this particular time of year for quite a while.
Sure, autumn across the South means cool weather and college football, this year’s uncommon Indian Summer notwithstanding. But for those of us who spend our days and nights with the burgeoning restaurant scene and historic architecture of this particular stretch of the Magic City, there’s something far more enticing that fall signals: the turning of the Ginkgo trees.
Just recently, as the Ginkgoes changed colors, both sides of 2nd Avenue were lined with hues of yellow and gold, creating one of the most beautiful five-block vistas imaginable.
But the question has always intrigued me: Where did they come from?
After doing a fair amount of digging and chasing every wild goose imaginable—from sister cities and peace offerings to titans of industry and political maneuvering—the answer is a simple one that requires a bit of history to fully bring into context.
You may or may not know that Ginkgo trees are not native to this part of the world. They are native to China and appear in works of literature and art dating back as far as Eastern civilization itself. But to be clear: These trees have no business being in the 21st century, much less the sidewalks of an early 20th century manufacturing hub.
The Ginkgo tree (or Ginkgo biloba as the taxonomist might call it) was called a “living fossil” by Charles Darwin because it is one of the oldest varieties of trees known to man, with Ginkgo leaves showing up in fossil records dating as far back as the Permian era. That’s right: The same trees that stood alongside dinosaurs now stand six feet from our front door.
Origins aside, Ginkgo trees have been a part of Birmingham’s story for more than a century. Two massive Ginkgoes loom just outside Munger Hall at Birmingham-Southern College, standing as a visual reminder of longevity and endurance. Ginkgo trees were also planted in Linn Park in the 1920s, concurrent with the construction of the courthouse, and later survived a WPA project to revitalize the park. But look at historic photography of the city through the 1960s and you’ll see that the sidewalks in downtown are noticeably absent of trees of any kind.
Following the turmoil surrounding the struggle for Civil Rights in Birmingham, the city underwent several major programs to try and make downtown more appealing. The first such effort was Birmingham Green, enacted under mayor George Seibels in the 1970s, which helped transform 20th Street and 21st Street into greener spaces.
It wasn’t until the early 1980s, under the leadership of Mayor Richard Arrington, that the city first underwent a major tree-planting initiative, which was designed by local landscape architecture firm Nimrod Long. This effort planted all of the Willow Oaks on 20th Street South from the railroads to Five Points, the Pin Oaks on 1st Avenue North from Sears (now Innovation Depot) to the Sloss Viaduct, and the Gingko and Savannah Holly trees on Second Avenue from 21st to 26th North. They also planted the Bradford Pear and Red Oaks on 23rd Street North.
Birmingham isn’t the only city to embrace these storied trees. Ginkgo trees are commonly found in cityscapes across the U.S., particularly in the upper Midwest and Northeast. City planners love them because their roots tend to grow more down than out, which prevents them from ruining sidewalks, sub-street structures, and surface streets. The Ginkgo also has little if any known predators, further explaining its long-standing favor with horticulturists and city planners alike.
On Second Avenue, the Ginkgo trees also have one more creative twist: The trees on each side of the street are different genders. All of them on the north side of the street are female, and all on the south side are male.
As it turns out, how they got here is less important that what they mean for our city today. For centuries, the Ginkgo leaf has been a symbol of timelessness and hope. And if you take a stroll down 2nd Avenue in the next few weeks, just look up, and you’ll feel both about our city.