Ginkgo biloba, a living fossil

The ginkgo ( Ginkgo biloba ) is a unique tree. This unique plant is the only survivor of several species of trees that appeared during the Jurassic but mostly disappeared several million years ago. The only region where the ginkgos survived was in central China , but it is believed that without human intervention the ginkgo would have become extinct just like the rest of its congeners. In this article we will talk about this peculiar tree and its history.

Characteristics of ginkgo biloba

Ginkgo biloba or a living fossil
Ginkgo biloba or a living fossil

Ginkgos can reach a height of 35 meters, their glass is pyramidal in shape and they can have one or more trunks. Wood can have quite deep cracks or gouges. They are deciduous trees, the leaves are light green most of the year but turn yellow before falling to the ground. The leaves of this tree are its most distinctive feature, as they are fan-shaped and can be divided into several lobes.

These plants are monoecious, which means that each tree can be male or female. Females produce seeds wrapped in pulp. This envelope should not be confused with a fruit, as these trees are gymnosperms and lack fruit. The seeds contain butyric acid, so they give off an unpleasant odor similar to rancid butter. 

Ginkgoes have a great regenerative capacity , which allows them to sprout again from their roots if the trunk is cut. The wood is resistant to insects and generally are plants that resist diseases well. They also have the ability to produce aerial roots. For all these reasons, there are numerous hundred-year-old ginkgos, having registered individuals of about 2,500 years of age.

Ginkgo biloba uses

The main reason ginkgo biloba is cultivated is for its ornamental appearance. Both the peculiar shape of its leaves and the color of these make it a visually striking tree. In addition, it has medicinal properties , particularly as part of traditional Chinese medicine. From the leaves you can make an infusion rich in flavonoids that improves circulation . Beneficial properties are attributed to it, including reducing the risk of thrombosis.

The pulp that covers the seeds, which gives them a fruit-like appearance, has certain culinary uses in Chinese and Japanese cuisine . It can be used in soups or desserts, and the seed is cooked together with the pulp. However, this pulp contains certain compounds that can cause health problems if the seeds are consumed in large quantities or for long periods of time. Specifically, it has a toxin that interferes with the absorption of vitamin B6.

Ginkgo cultivation

Ginkgo biloba or a living fossil
Ginkgo biloba or a living fossil

The cultivation of ginkgo biloba is associated with primitive Buddhism. Thanks to the expansion of this religion, the plant was transported to new regions, particularly Japan and Korea, where today there are natural ginkgo forests. It was introduced to North America 200 years ago and Europe 300 years ago, but there are no wild populations on these continents.

Due to the peculiar bad smell that female plants give off, most of the plants that can be seen planted outside of Asia are male. This is possible thanks to the clonal propagation of plants . However, one thing to keep in mind is that male ginkgo pollen can cause allergies.

A common name for this plant in France is “tree of the 40 shields”, since a citizen of Paris bought several trees from a horticulturist for this price. One of the first ginkgos in Europe is found in the Utretch botanical garden , where it was planted in the early 18th century by a German botanist. Ginkgos can also be grown in bonsai form.

The last of its kind

The ginkgo is considered a living fossil because it has undergone little change in its morphology since it first appeared in the fossil record , about 290 million years ago. Interestingly, the oldest fossil found of a ginkgo is found in France, far removed from its current range. 

Congeneric ginkgo species appeared in the Cretaceous, before flowering and fruiting plants existed. The fact that the ginkgo has reached our days without undergoing major modifications indicates that these plants were not well adapted to changes, so that a variation in the global climate together with the appearance of more evolved plants would have triggered the disappearance of the other species of its genus.

The only area where ginkgo could survive in the wild was the Zhejiang region in China. Despite the fact that the plant was believed to be extinct millions of years ago, living specimens were found there. Due to the genetic uniformity of the ginkgo forests in the area, it is believed that it was cultivated by monks about 1,000 years ago, thus saving itself from disappearance . The reason why it was able to survive until its cultivation by humans began was that the valleys of Zhejiang would have served as a refuge for the plant during the ice ages.

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