Anything Kew can do…..Ginkgo Biloba – yin xing 銀杏

Anything Kew can do…..Ginkgo Biloba – yin xing 銀杏

Our beautiful Ginkgo Biloba trees grow side by side in the centre of the Frameyard  like a pair of Chinese vases.

At this time of year the fan-shaped leaves are turning a mellow shade of yellow. How can we not admire these trees?  They survived the dropping of an atomic bomb in Hiroshima where almost all other plants were destroyed, they’ve outlived dinosaurs, they produce nutrients which are used in health supplements and they link us philosophically and botanically to both the past and the future.

We have many reasons to love our Ginkgo trees in the Frameyard. They stand elegantly tall in our walled space, provide us with beautiful colour and just last week our gardener Bernard remarked how they provide much-needed shade for our seedlings in Glasshouse No. 4.

Ginkgo Biloba leaves

Ginkgo Biloba leaves in the Frameyard 

Ginkgo Biloba (biloba for its bi-lobed leaves) trees are called “living fossils” because, according botanist Peter Crane, Dean of Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, they have remained unchanged for 200 million years. He says “With the fossils that I’ve worked on myself, from about 65 million years ago, we were able to determine exactly how the seeds were attached to the plant and they were attached in an identical way to modern ginkgo. If we could go back in a time machine, maybe we would find some differences, but I suspect not.”

As we’ve seen in a previous post on trees, one Ginkgo tree growing in the Zhongnan Mountains in China is 1,400 years old. In 1692, Engelbert Kaempfer, a German botanist and physician brought the seeds of the Ginkgo back to Europe when he returned from his travels in Japan. Closer to home, the Ginkgo trees in Kew Gardens, London have become an attraction at the park. Among a stand of trees called the “Old Lions”, is a Ginkgo tree planted in 1762 by King George III’s mother, Princess Augusta.

Male Ginkgo

Male Ginkgo

Female Ginkgo

Female Ginkgo

Male and female Ginkgo trees differ. Male trees have pollen-producing catkins while female trees, once fertilised, bear rounded, yellowish seeds with a fleshy outer coat (resembling a plum in appearance). It’s the fleshy surrounding on the seeds that cause the smell as it begins to decay in autumn. This rancid butter-like smell is sometimes compared  to vomit! For this reason, most garden centres only sell male trees.

In Chinese medecine, the gingko seed  is prescribed either as a lung tonic stewed with chicken etc. or as a key part of herbal remedies for  asthma and bronchitis. An extract from the leaf is considered to be good for memory or cognitive function, being used to treat Alzheimer’s Disease or Dementia. It has been associated with treatments for blood flow, dizziness, leg pains, fatigue, anxiety.  Research on its efficacy differs. It’s sold in many health shops in the form of supplements. In Asian cooking, the seeds are considered a delicacy and are used for desserts, soups and served with meat.

Ginkgo seeds for sale in Chinatown, New York. Image by DAVID MARCELIS/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Ginkgo seeds for sale in Chinatown, New York.                (David Marcelis, Wall St Journal)

Ginkgo poem by Goethe    Ginkgo Biloba poem by Goethe

The Ginkgo Biloba Tree has been eulogised by poets such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in his poem for Marianne Von Villemer. 

But we’ll give the last word to Qing dynasty poet, Li Shanji: 

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
Its invisible qi.

(quoted in Wang Chunwu, A Chronicle of Mt. Qingcheng (Qingcheng Shan Zhi)

* Goethe poem english translation –