Ginkgo biloba - The maidenhair tree

Evening light on the ivy-covered trunk of a "living fossil"
(December 2000)

ginkgo (kanji)

"In 1492, Colombus discovered America." We all know that's true, but we are also aware that this statement would have sounded pretty odd to anyone who happened to be already living in America at the time. The story of the discovery of the ginkgo tends to get told in the same, somewhat confusing, way, so I'll attempt to redress the balance by telling it from the Japanese point of view.

One of a pair of trees in a local temple grounds
Both the fresh green colour and the arrangement of the branches are quite distinctive
(April 2000)

"It's a sunny day in Nagasaki, and it's 1690. Do we know what ichou is? We certainly do! It's a common enough tree, with at least one growing within the grounds of most (Buddhist) temples and (Shinto) shrines hereabouts. It's a big tree, and it can live a long time, perhaps for thousands of years, they say. Do we know why it's called ichou, or where it came from? Not quite so easy, but surely must have come from China. (Most things do.) Probably with Buddhism, or something. We usually write the name with the Chinese characters for silver (gin as in ginkou, bank), and apricot (kyou or an, as in anzu jamu or apricot jam, if that's been invented yet). Hmm, that's a bit confusing, but we do call the nuts gin-nan.

"Anyway, apparently this Dutch geezer, Engelbert Something, has just turned up in the port. Must be Dutch, because they're the only hairy barbarians allowed in. Er, Something began with 'K', perhaps "Kenpu...", or was it "Ken Peru"? Well, one of the lads happened to be there when he (the Dutchman, that is) bumped into this ichou tree, and promptly got extremely excited about it. Was saying something that everyone knew it wasn't there. Seems odd, since we certainly knew."

Engelbert Kaempfer (rendered as kenperu in Japanese) was the first of the Three Great Plant-Watchers, and lived in Nagasaki from 1690 to 1692. He was German, and it may have been that no disguise was necessary, since he appeared in Nagasaki before the rigid "Dutch-only" rule came into force. Seeds of the ginkgo that he collected were sent back to the Netherlands, and this was one of the first oriental trees widely grown in the west as an ornamental shade tree. At some stage, it became known as a "living fossil", because it's the only member of the ancient botanical division ginkgophyta which still survives. Some accounts suggest that in Kaempfer's time fossil members of the ginkgo family were already known, though whether Kaempfer himself would have been familiar with this isn't clear.

And despite the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (SOED) describing it as a "Japanese tree", it seems that the ginkgo did originate from China. Since it has been cultivated for centuries, there is some dispute whether any original wild trees might still exist somewhere in the mountains of Eastern China. (There may also, incidentally, be some confusion between the discovery by Kaempfer that the ginkgo is not extinct, and the various reports of ginkgoes being found in the wild, none of which seem to have been confirmed.)

Backlit detail of leaf
As it fell (December 2000)

So where does it fit into the scheme of things? And what happens in the autumn?

Plant classification is a bit complex, but in evolutionary order, after the mosses and worts (no proper roots or water transport), and ferns, horsetails, and club mosses (proper roots, bear spores), we get the two big divisions, the gymnosperms ('naked seeds') and angiosperms ('covered seeds'). Angiosperms are all the boring plants that people put in gardens, like cabbages and dahlias. Almost all surviving gymnosperms are conifers - Christmas trees, and so on - but the group also includes cycads (tropical plants rather like palm-trees), and of course the ginkgoes. This plural is a bit odd, since there's only one species of ginkgo left now, but things were different in the days of the dinosaurs. There were many species then, with a range of leaf shapes.

The biloba of this species name means that it is divided into two lobes, but in fact the depth of the division is quite variable. Trapped leaf As you can see in the above backlit view, the most characteristic feature is the parallel veins - this particular leaf is almost a pure fan shape.

And the autumn? The trees adopt a very independent attitude to turning. Some trees will be yellow, and semi-bare, while others are still green, and still others exhibit an odd patchwork, with some yellow areas, some green. And the show doesn't last for very long, because once an individual tree decides to drop, it's all over in a few days. Around Sano, this generally happens in late November or early December. With their neat parachute shape, the leaves tend not to fall in a tidy heap, but to catch on branches of surrounding bushes. The actual material of the leaf is still quite resilient when fallen, and if they land on still water do not lie flat, resembling not so much a dead leaf as a drunken drowning butterfly, or miniature capsizing yacht.

Ginkgo leaves
Sunken, floating, and reflected

Backlit tree

Fallen leaves
A yellow (stair) carpet

(All photographs December 2000 - click for full-size)

Can you eat the fruit?

A couple of fallen "fruits"
(December 2000)

We have to be careful, here. In strict botanical terms they are not fruit; they are seeds, with a fleshy coating. But there is a second reason for being careful: not only can you not eat the outer flesh, but it produces a foul smell (butyric acid, as in rancid butter), and can cause nasty skin rash. This is why gardening books in the West normally instruct you to plant a male tree, to avoid this problem. Oh, I forgot to mention, the ginkgo is dioecious ("two houses" in Greek), which means there are separate male and female trees.

But inside this nasty orange thing is a kernel, the seed itself, which can be eaten. There are a variety of traditional methods for removing the outer coat, but I found a different one: I simply trod on it by accident. As you can see, this pops out the kernel, which looks something like a fattened pistachio. This is the shell surrounding the green edible part, or "nut". These are usually grilled, and eaten with a little salt. Quite delicious.

Digression - I've always been impressed by the huge biological range covered by Japanese cuisine. It's not at all fanciful to imagine a meal including: angiosperms (cabbage), gymnosperms (ginkgo nuts), pteridophytes (fern shoots), algae (seaweed), vertebrates (fish), molluscs (squid), echinoderms (sea urchin), arthropods (crab). That's eight phyla, or major divisions!

The traditional methods I mentioned include burying the "fruit" in the soil, so that the outer flesh rots away. Some reports suggest that this is a rather slow process, so I'll be looking for alternatives (rubber gloves come into most of them). Watch for an update.

In addition to use as a delicacy, the ginkgo has been used in traditional Chinese medicine, and is enjoying popularity now in "alternative" health circles. (Perhaps half of the websites about the ginkgo are herbal remedy sites of one sort or another.) Generally infusions from the leaves are used, and these are claimed to improve one's brain power to an amazing degree. They do contain substances which are known to improve circulation to the brain in particular; rather less believable is the original Chinese theory that the leaves must be good for the brain, because they resemble a section of the brain in shape. Also fascinating: a good number of sites advocating use of ginkgo leaf infusions claim that the seeds are toxic.

Part 2 - Ginkgo Origins



(An identical list appears in Part 2)

In English


The Ginkgo Pages - Cor Kwant's comprehensive site, in Dutch, English, and German versions.
Includes the original and an English translation of the ode to the ginkgo by Goethe, who got very worked up about the incipient division of the leaf into two lobes.
I also couldn't help spotting the Dutch word for dioecious, which is "tweehuizig" (i.e. "two-house-ish"). Much easier to remember!


Wayne's Word: Plants of Jurassic Park - a nice page of "living fossils".

Ginkgoales: Fossil Record - fossile ginkoales from the Museum of Paleontology, Berkeley.

Ohio State University - page on the ginkgo entry claims "seeds are toxic" and should not be eaten.

Not quite botany - a second species Ginkgo webola discovered living in Wisconsin with her husband!

In Japanese

Mayanagi Makoto: "The discovery of the ginkgo and its transfer to Japan" - a paper that I've relied on extensively in researching ginkgo origins. (He says that this is a provisional version, and shouldn't be cited, but I've assumed this means in print. This page is "provisional" too!)

Ehime Shinbun article that repeats the standard argument that ichou must come from yachau, the "duck-foot" name, and therefore the tree must have arrived in Japan in the Kamakura period.

In German

Bodo Manitz - ginkgo fossils and Kaempfer's discovery.

Prof. Dr. Walter Jung - Munich paleontologist's page.

In French

Bernard Langellier - includes the bit about Kaempfer mistranscribing 'y' as 'g' ("...On ne put jamais convaincre les botanistes de corriger cette erreur.") and a story about how the "Tree of 40 ecus" name arose.


© Brian Chandler 2000
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More ginkgo pages
Part 2 - ginkgo origins
"A Reunion of Trees" - review of Spongberg's book, including Kaempfer's story
My jeKai entry for ginkgo
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Created January 2001