Ginkgo History: Gilded Fossil Trees

Learn the history of the medicinal, edible, beautiful ginkgoes that grow everywhere from monasteries to busy cities, showering us in fall with their distinctive, fan-shaped golden leaves.

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    Golden leaves from a large ginkgo tree carpet the ground at Jeonju Gyeonggijeon Hall in Jeonju, South Korea.
    Photo by Getty Images/Im Yeongsik
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    Mature ginkgo trees put on a stunning fall show.
    Photo by Getty Images/baphotte
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    Ginkgo nuts are featured in seasonal chawanmushi.
    Photo by Wikimedia Commons/Ocdp

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At some point in their education, every botany student is introduced to the ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba). I became very familiar with a huge female ginkgo tree as a freshman botany student at Ohio Wesleyan University — not in any botany class, but outside the window of my Greek literature class. That tree has since been removed, but at the time, the smell of its fruit littering the ground and crushed daily under the feet of hundreds of students filled the air with a vomit-like odor. It was cringe-worthy and memorable.

The Dinosaur Plant

Ginkgo biloba is native to Southeast Asia; it’s often called a living fossil, because it can be found in the fossil record at the same time as the dinosaurs. Ginkgoes have also remained essentially unchanged for 200 million years, and are now the only plants of their kind. They’re the only living species in their genus, family, order, and division — for comparison, all flowering plants compose another division in the plant kingdom.

Long-lived as a species, ginkgoes can also attain astonishing ages as individuals; one tree in China is estimated to be 3,500 years old. The species has had tremendous success spreading its seeds — something all plants that reproduce by seed must do to survive. Plants can’t walk, so unless they’re spreading their seeds by wind or water, they must use animals for transportation. To do so, some plants create seeds that can hitchhike in an animal’s fur; entice animals to eat delicious, seed-bearing fruit; or devise other mutually beneficial incentives. Ginkgo seeds don’t float or fly, so they must’ve been distributed by animals. However, scientists haven’t found any living creature that naturally carries, eats, or moves them. Much like the hedge apple (Maclura pomifera), the ginkgo appears to have outlived its seed dispersal partner, which may have been either a dinosaur or a prehistoric mammal. Whatever the animal partner was, ginkgoes needed a new seed dispersal strategy when it died out — and humans have enthusiastically taken the job.

Ginkgoes’ Uses as Medicine, Poison, and Food

Ginkgoes’ fleshy fruits contain urushiol, the chemical in poison ivy that causes allergic reactions and skin rashes, and the nuts contain ginkgotoxin, a chemical that disrupts the body’s uptake of vitamin B6. Ginkgotoxin poisoning occurs at about 10 nuts per day for adults and five for children — and yet, humans have used ginkgo nuts and leaves as both food and medicine for centuries.

In much of Asia, the nuts are considered a delicacy. Cuisines that feature the nuts use them in small amounts as part of seasonal side dishes or appetizers, keeping diners’ consumption of ginkgotoxin well below the danger zone. In Japan, a traditional savory egg custard called chawanmushi is made in fall to make use of fresh ginkgo nuts. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) hasn’t approved ginkgo nut consumption as food or medicine, but if you can find a female tree, you can gather your own nuts to try. Wear gloves to protect your hands from the urushiol in the fruits, and gather them as they drop from the trees in fall. Peel and wash off the flesh, until you’re left with a woody shell resembling a pistachio. Lightly roast the nuts to make them easier to open, and remove the almond-like nut inside. Ginkgo nuts are low in calories and contain B-complex vitamins, copper, manganese, potassium, magnesium, and iron. Chinese and Japanese traditional medicine also features the nuts as anti-asthmatic, expectorants, and antitussives.

In the United States, the FDA has approved ginkgo leaves for internal use; unlike the nuts, the leaves don’t contain ginkgotoxin. Numerous clinical studies have shown the leaves to be effective at increasing peripheral blood flow and acting as peripheral vasodilators (they widen blood vessels). The active chemicals also reduce clotting, so those on blood thinners should avoid ginkgo leaf. Ginkgo leaf preparations can be used to treat brain disorders in the aged, Raynaud’s disease, and eye issues brought on by poor blood flow. Ginkgo is also featured prominently in formulas to improve memory and concentration. The leaves are high in calcium, chromium, niacin, phosphorus, selenium, and zinc, and were traditionally used in topical applications for skin disorders, though they’re now more popularly steeped for medicinal teas.



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