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Friday, November 06, 2009

Ginkgo biloba

Ginko biloba is the only living species in the division (phylum?) Ginkgophyta. It is a species of deciduous tree that's only distantly related to to the other trees that we see around us. Some taxonomists classify it as a gymnosperm but that's not a universally recognized classification. It's certainly not an angiosperm (flowering plant).

Ginkgo is often called a "living fossil" because it resembles plants that date from 270 million years ago. The term is misleading because, like other "living fossils" Ginko biloba has evolved considerably since the time of its similar-looking ancestors.

The trees are either male or female. I recently visited a beautiful example of a female tree growing in the yard of Frank Lloyd Wright's house in Oak Park in the suburb's of Chicago. The tree was full of "berries" (technically not fruit), which were about to drop. I'm told that the berries are edible but not very pleasant. They smell like human feces. (The pun is obvious ... don't bother. )

I wish I'd been there a bit later 'cause ever since I learned about Ginkgo I've wanted to taste the berries.

All of the trees in North America have been deliberately planted by gardeners. The one in the yard of the Frank Lloyd Wright house was already there when Wright bought the property in 1889. It's estimated to be about 160 years old. They don't grow very well in most parts of Canada.

I was under the impression that the tree is native to some parts of China but recent genotyping of the trees suggests that even those trees may have been deliberately planted there by ancient monks.


  1. So where is it native to, in that case. Also, how do you tell the sex of a tree if you're not an expert?

  2. Well, it's a little late now, but I can get you berries next year. I have one in my yard, and there's one in the park I walk by. I like my ginko tree better than my elm trees.

    I've been told that a ginko tree can change sex. I don't know if that's true or not.

    I had no idea that ginko trees had went through much evolution. Is there information available for the lay person that talks about the changes that tree went through?

  3. "Also, how do you tell the sex of a tree if you're not an expert?"

    I've heard that only the female ones have the nasty smelling fruit/seed/whatever-you-call-it. I never notice them until I'm raking leaves in the fall, so I don't think the fruit is very obvious.

  4. Had a male in my backyard in British Columbia. Many people came by to get cuttings from it. The most interesting thing I observed about it was that it dropped all of its leaves in the course of about a day in the fall.

  5. "it dropped all of its leaves in the course of about a day in the fall."

    I've noticed this also. The day in question is usually the day after the city's last leaf pickup.

  6. You should be able to find plenty of the fruits around here Larry, Toronto has lots of ginkgos. In fact there used to be some at Queen's Park, just a short walk from your office. They're probably males though, as the females aren't too popular for obvious reasons. I haven't smelled one for years but in my recollection they don't smell like human feces. They smell like canid feces.

  7. The trees are either male or female.

    Campus gingko tree undergoes natural sex change
    "A Winona State groundskeeper noticed one tree’s gender shift approximately three years ago when he was giving a tree tour to a group of grade-school children.
    Bill Meyer, Winona State senior groundskeeper and co-author of “The Trees of Winona State University,” stopped in front of a ginkgo biloba tree and was explaining to the group that Winona State planted only male trees because they do not produce foul-smelling berries, a female characteristic.
    One student, with a sharp eye, interrupted Meyer and proved him wrong by pointing out a single berry.

  8. There are a number of female trees near the Royal Ontario Museum (Avenue Rd. entrance). I've been insanely busy this year so I haven't been around there, so I don't know when they were ripe, but I imagine it was probably about a couple weeks ago.

    I wouldn't really describe it as a "berry", the fleshy part smells and isn't eaten (or at least not to my knowledge.) It's the seed ("nut") inside that is used in a number of chinese soups.

    They're fairly mild-tasting, with a sort of starchy texture.

  9. They're fairly mild-tasting, with a sort of starchy texture.
    They have a mild bitterness and a crunch similar to a boiled peanut. I don't know how informative the crunch analogy is though.

  10. As far as I know, the flesh of the gingko "berries" shouldn't be eaten. It's sticky and it's reported to cause allergies, so better not touch it with your bare hands. As for the smell, I would liken it to rancid butter.

    The part that is eaten is the "almond" inside the shell. The Chinese call it "white nuts". Never tried it.

    Which makes me think that it's time to go pick all the berries fallen from the ground, a few streets from where I work. Not to eat them, but to grow trees from them. I love gingkos.

  11. As for the smell, I would liken it to rancid butter.

    Well done. The molecule involved is butyric acid.