Ginkgo/Maidenhair Tree

Ginkgo biloba

All of the ginkgos (also known as maidenhair trees) outside of China were directly or indirectly introduced from China.

Called the “World’s No. 1 Living Fossil,”the ginkgo predates the dinosaurs and is deemed the most ancient of trees. The ginkgo biloba has been described as a “living fossil” because of its relatives are found in the fossil record dating back to the Permian. Understanding of its evolution, however, was impeded by a gap in this record of over 100 million years. An article published in Nature in 2003 claims to fill this gap with a fossil collected in Liaoning Province, China.

Sometimes called the “giant panda of plants,” wild ginkgos like the panda are endangered. They survive in only a few scattered patches of forest in China. 

The source of the Western name “ginkgo” is apparently a misspelling of the Japanese name for the plant, ginkyo, by the German botanist Engelbert Kaempfer, who saw one growing in a Japanese temple garden in 1690. Ginkyo is the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese term for the plant, jinxing, meaning “silver apricot,” a description of the ginkgo “nut,” the hard-shelled kernel of the fruit of the ginkgo tree.”

When China’s State Forestry Administration asked people to vote on a national tree, the ginkgo won with 95% of the vote. The love of the tree is rooted not only in its antiquity, but also in its beauty and health-giving properties. The trees are exceptionally durable and long lived, some living over a thousand years, and can grow to great heights (over 30 meters). The elegant fan-shaped leaves of the great trees turn golden yellow in autumn, ensuring it a place in poetry and art. A poem by the 19th-century writer Li Shanji extols the ginkgo:

In exquisite billows,
the foliage cascades 
from its shrouded source in the sky; 
green abundance veils the top-
dwelling place of the lone crane. 
Like a dancing phoenix, 
its trunk soars to the clouds, 
like a coiled dragon perching on a cliff
these images reveal its hidden forces.
(Quoted from)

The nuts give off a putrid odor, but are much valued in both cuisine and medicine. In Chinese cuisine, ginkgo nuts appear in both sweet and savory dishes. Sometimes they substitute for lotus seeds in 'eight treasure' dishes. Thought to resemble silver ingots and are featured in New Year’s food to represent good fortune. Practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine use ginkgo leaves, nuts, and extracts are used to treat a wide variety of health problems, from lung and urinary track problems to loss of memory.

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Selected Asian works of art featuring Ginkgo:


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