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Ginkgo, The Beautiful Maidenhair-tree

Understanding the Fascinating Ginkgo Biloba

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lined gingko biloba trees at Gaienmae in fall
ULTRA.F/Photodisc/Getty Images
Ginkgo leaf

Ginkgo leaf

GFDL Permission Granted for Use - Reinhard Kraasch

Ginkgo biloba is known as a "living fossil tree". This tree's genetic line of development spans the Mesozoic era back to the Triassic geologic period. Closely related, extinct species are known to have existed in first forests over 200 million years ago.

Before reading further you might want to take this quiz to see how much you know about Ginkgo.

Also known as maidenhair-tree, the leaf shape and other vegetative organs are identical to fossils found in the United States, Europe and Greenland. The contemporary ginkgo is cultivated and does not exist anywhere in the wild state. Scientists think that the native ginkgo was destroyed by glaciers that ultimately covered the whole Northern Hemisphere.

Ancient Chinese records are surprisingly complete and describe the tree as ya-chio-tu , meaning a tree with leaves like a duck's foot. Asian people systematically planted the tree and many living ginkgoes are known to be more than 5 centuries old. Buddhists not only kept written records but revered the tree and preserved it in temple gardens. Western collectors eventually imported ginkgoes to Europe where it was very popular in large cities like London and Paris.

Ginkgo biloba was first brought into the United States by William Hamilton for his garden in Philadelphia in 1784. It was a favorite tree of Architect Frank Lloyd Wright and made its way into city landscapes across North America. The tree had an ability to survive pests, drought, storms, ice, city soils, and was widely planted. But it did have a problem...

Stink-bomb Tree

The ginkgo is dioecious. That simply means that there are separate male and female plants. Only the female plant, when fertilized, produces the oval, slimy, tan-orange ginkgo fruit . The fruit stinks!

The smell's description ranges from "rancid butter" to "vomit". This foul smell has limited ginkgo's popularity while also causing city governments to actually remove the tree and ban the female from being planted. Male ginkgoes do not produce a fruit and are selected as the main cultivars used to transplant in urban communities.

The slippery pulp can also be a liability. Because of potential city sidewalks slick with the pulp of the fruit, urban landscapers recommend only the male tree. Some of the best varieties found to plant are acceptable in most yards and near sidewalks are 'Autumn Gold', 'Princeton Sentry' and 'Fairmont'.

Thanks for the Memories

The extract of ginkgo biloba is bottled as a remedy for several ailments.

Maidenhair-tree's leaf extract is a billion dollar business. According to one recent report, "In Germany alone, ginkgo biloba prescriptions (it is prescribed by doctors in Germany) retailed at $280 million in U.S. dollars". A German manufacturer, Schwabe, sold almost $2 billion U.S. dollars worth of Ginkgo biloba extract worldwide in 1993. I don't have the most recent numbers.

Gingko biloba is most effective as a concentrated extract and is found in either liquid or tablet form. It has beneficial effects on the circulatory system, particularly among the elderly. Studies have shown it can help in treatment of their short-term memory loss, headache, tinnitus (ringing in the ears) and depression by improving blood flow in the arteries and capillaries

Fascinating Facts

  • There are no native ginkgoes living in the wild. All wild trees were wiped out hundreds of thousands of years ago but human intervention has saved the modern tree. The tree does not easily naturalize in nature.
  • Several ginkgoes were the only living survivors of an atomic bomb blast dropped on Hiroshima by the United States. It obviously has very interesting survival characteristics.
  • About 50 pounds of dried ginkgo leaves yield a pound of the medicinal product.

Cor Kwant's - The Ginkgo Pages
A great site "about Ginkgo biloba and all its aspects".

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