Have you noticed any bright yellow trees that seem as if they could glow in the dark? If your answer is yes, then you very well may be looking at one of the most magnificent trees in the South - the ginkgo tree.
The ginkgo tree is considered to be a living fossil with the earliest leaf fossils dating back to 270 million years ago. Not only is the color of the tree beautifully unique, but the shape of the leaves as well. This natural beauty has leaves that are fan shaped and feel like leather to the touch. The leaves do not crumble easily and result in a beautiful sea of yellow when fallen to the ground.
To Randolph County's fortune, a beautiful gingko tree resides right across from Handley High School, and not only does the tree itself have a history to tell, but also the people who have grown up with the tree. People all around Roanoke have stories to tell about this tree and others near it.
Patsy Cotney, a resident of West Point Street, tells about the ginkgo tree near Handley, "When my daughter was young, I picked she and a friend up at Knight-Enloe once a week and took them to piano lessons from Marion Hamner who lived on Bullock. Every time on the way to piano, I would stop and let them get out and play in those yellow leaves. They loved those leaves. It didn't matter if they were late to piano. I took a lot of pictures of them playing in those trees."
However, you better catch a glimpse while you can because these beautiful leaves fall quickly overnight. "My children and their friends love to call it the 'naked' tree. One day it would have leaves and the next day it would be naked!" chuckles Cotney.
Cotney's grandson started a tradition with the tree. He would come on Thanksgiving and collect the ginkgo leaves and make a construction paper headband, gluing the leaves like little feathers. "We would wear those on Thanksgiving, and we still do this. But it started with the gingko leaves when he was 3 or 4 years old. He's 9 now and we will always have that family tradition."
Cotney held this tree so dear she took it upon herself to beg former Fire Chief Bill Ford to protect the tree when doing a burning exercise in the area. "The fire department did a burning exercise at the Mann house and trained to put a house fire out. We had a group of people over for dinner living on West Point Street and we all walked down. I had just begged Bill Ford to be careful about that tree and not let flames touch it. So, he set up a fire truck and ran a hose that just sprayed water continuously on that tree while they were burning it. It did burn a lot of that tree, and for years you could still see signs of some fire damage in the limbs."
Ruth Moseley, a 94-year-old resident of West Point Street, recalls watching Ada Mann plant the ginkgo tree across from Handley. She also recalls the burning of the W.J. and Ada Mann house, "When it damaged that tree, I thought it was ruined. It's one of the most beautiful trees you'll find," reveals Moseley.
Mrs. Moseley's daughter, Lynn Moseley Hunt, also has memories of this tree, "I remember when that was a small gingko, not a large one," she explains. "The area where that tree stands was originally on the border of the Mann's property, next to the old gymnasium/library. There is also an older gingko between the house I grew up in (on the corner) and the one next door that the Wilkinsons purchased and are remodeling." Hunt also recalls, "The fire caused some damage to the tree giving it the slightly lopsided shape."
This ginkgo tree is pictured showing off its unique yellow leaves. Thankfully it still radiates the vibrant yellow despite the recent freeze in Roanoke. It is a gorgeous tree to examine at this time of year and embraces fond memories of many families in our county.
Another ginkgo tree near this one resides on Randle Street on the former Hooton property. Tom Waldrep, a former Roanoke resident, explains, "They had a big white house that set back up on the hill. It was a two-story antebellum home from the 1800s. Mary Hooton was a librarian at Handley High School for years and this tree was on her property."
Waldrep has vivid memories from his sophomore year of high school that involved this tree. Kathleen Shelnutt was Waldrep's 10th-grade biology teacher at Handley High School and took them on frequent field trips to look at different trees, plants and shrubs, "especially those that were more exotic," recalls Waldrep. "At that time, that gingko tree was the only gingko tree in Randolph County. She considered that noteworthy and wanted her students to see it. She would always take us in November or October when the tree was ablaze with yellow. The leaf also had an unusual shape which was of significance." Waldrep graduated from Handley in 1963; therefore, he would have been in the 10th grade in 1961, looking at this tree in the fall of 1960.
If you notice a vibrantly yellow tree in Randolph County, stop and get out to feel the leaves. You will know a ginkgo when you see one, and you may just be basking upon history. Nonetheless, make your own memories with these trees as we are fortunate enough to gaze at their bright beauty for only a short period of time.