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I love the leaves of the ginkgo tree for their distinct shape all year, but in the fall they really shine. We planted a ginkgo tree more than 10 years ago on our farm. Now that all the leaves are changing I have begun to watch for the change in our ginkgo. The golden fans fluttering in the breeze will soon fall all at once rather than in fits and starts.
The ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) tree has fascinated me since my college botany classes. The ginkgo tree is the lone species in its genus. In fact, it is the only remaining living member of its division, or phylum. This means that in the second of the seven taxonomic classifications of life, it stands alone here on our planet. I feel a mixture of feelings, standing underneath a ginkgo tree: loneliness, pride of survival, wonder and a bit of protectiveness. I feel called to share all that the ginkgo can do for us and the need for us to take care to plant it if we can.
Depending on where you are in the world, ginkgo can be used as a food and a medicine. Here in the U.S. the tree is routinely planted along streets and around parking lots. One of several common trees with medicinal uses, it is extremely hardy and tolerant of very harsh conditions. The downside? The western world has largely outlawed the female trees because of the smell and mess of the fruit. This threatens the future survival of this precious species and should be reconsidered.
In China, people each year gather the stinky fruits for food. Ginkgo nuts are made into a traditional egg custard called chawanmushi.
The leaf is used universally and has been the subject of many clinical studies. I often recommend the leaf in tea, tincture, capsule and beyond for uses including Raynaud’s disease, eye issues, circulatory insufficiencies, nervous system maladies, high cholesterol and clotting disorders, stroke prevention, and difficulties with memory and concentration. The leaf is high in calcium, chromium, niacin, phosphorus, selenium and zinc. The nuts are used in medicine as well for their expectorant, antitussive and antiasthmatic properties.
A favorite story about the gingko involves the yearly gathering of the female fruits underneath the specimen trees that survived the Hiroshima bombing in Japan. These nuts are gathered and carefully preserved for planting around the world. The Green Legacy Hiroshima project is determined to use saplings grown from these trees to literally plant the notion of peace throughout the world.
My ginkgo claims a much more humble beginning, but it’s important an important one to me nonetheless. My tree grows in the middle of our medicine wheel, where people often erect a peace pole. I like that my tree was grown from seed by a friend, and I encourage everyone to find a way to give space for this living legend. Try to get a seed and let it grow naturally. Avoid buying nursery stock that is perpetuating only the male trees. This plant is a survivor. There really isn’t a specific type of soil or way to grow it other than its need for full sunlight. Pick a spot where it can grow to its full height without getting into power lines or need to be cut back from structures. They are hardy in zones 3-8 and can grow to reach 100 feet tall with a 30- to 50-foot spread.
It will be a while before I know whether I have planted a male or female, but I will be grateful to be a part of its 200 million year history either way.