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Miami U students are on ‘ginkgo watch’ to celebrate the annual dropping of the leaves

yellow and green ginkgo leaves
Zack Carreon
The ginkgo leaves on Miami University's campus are turning yellow.

First year students in Miami University's architecture program are staking out ginkgo trees on campus — literally — in anticipation of the annual ginkgo leaf drop. Led by Terry Welker, FAIA, visiting assistant professor in the Department of Architecture and Interior Design, they've placed stakes around four campus ginkgo trees to make sure grounds crews don't whisk away the leaves when they fall.

"We have these things that have happened in our world that are worth making note of because they bring these particular moments of pleasure," says Welker. "One of them is the annual ginkgo drop."

The annual what now?

Ginkgo biloba trees are considered living fossils. They're the "only surviving member of a group of ancient plants believed to have inhabited the earth up to 150 million years ago," according to the Missouri Botanical Garden. Though not native to Ohio — they hail from Southern China — they are popular in urban areas. They have fan-shaped green leaves in the summer, which turn to a brilliant yellow in the fall.

It's in the autumn that something fascinating happens. Once all the leaves on a ginkgo tree turn a bright golden hue, the tree waits for just the right cold snap and just the right biological conditions, and then it drops all its leaves at the same time over a couple of days. It's not just one tree either, it's seemingly all the ginkgo trees within the same area.

The annual phenomenon has been happening later in the season. Climate change is the culprit behind the delay, causing the necessary cold and frost to arrive later and later. Sometimes the ginkgoes drop their leaves before they've fully turned, too.

RELATED: Why leaves really fall off trees

Tyler Arboretum in Pennsylvania notes "... the leaf color change and leaf drop will be determined by many factors such as moisture, wind, day length, temperature and much more. Over the past few decades we've seen the earth's climate warm and the local weather change and those changes can be stressful for our plants."

Right, then... back to the Miami students

When ginkgo trees finally decide to drop their leaves, the ground beneath them becomes a golden carpet. Welker and his students want people to bask in that simple beauty. The marker flags they've placed will ensure the grounds crews leave the leaves in place for people to delight in.

"I would expect people to just enjoy them. If you want to stuff a few in your pocket and take them home, you're welcome to do that. They can certainly lay in them, play in them, sit in them, just be with them," he says. "It's kind of like taking that moment from your inner child."

He says it's like raking leaves as a kid just to revel in the shear joy of jumping in the leaf pile.

"Just enjoy the moment," he adds. "Take a little (moment of) reflection on that and the importance of learning to do that and find happiness in our own lives."

Welker and his students are hoping it will turn into a social media event with people sharing their pictures online. That, in turn, might inspire other people to observe the ginkgo trees around them and find their own joy.

RELATED: On Miami University's Hamilton campus, the walk to class just got a lot more educational

"It's something that is sort of a moment in time, one of those feel-good things that makes you smile."

It's educational, too. Welker says his first year students spend a lot of time "traipsing" around campus drawing, sketching, and generally observing the buildings and nature.

"The natural environment, it's just as much a part of the fabric, it's the palette, it's the ground plane that we put architecture on. It's architecture and the environment working together."

Senior Editor and reporter at WVXU with more than 20 years experience in public radio; formerly news and public affairs producer with WMUB. Would really like to meet your dog.