"It is estimated that there are over 300 pharmaceutical and clinical studies in Europe have researched or are researching the medicinal uses of Ginkgo leaf extract EGb 761. This extract is already being used, mostly in the form of herbal pills, to treat cardiovascular conditions, lung complications, and cognitive or memory disorders. It is used in these ways due to its anti-inflammatory properties, first discovered in ancient China. In the United States, the University of Maryland Medical Center has been conducting studies on the clinical effects Ginkgo can have on conditions such as depression, ADD and ADHD, chronic migraines, and vertigo as well. While the historical medicinal uses are vast, modern medical science is discovering more uses of this versatile plant every year.“Since the only native Ginkgo trees that survived the extinction were confined to what is now China, when people arrived in Southeast Asia, they grew to appreciate and cultivate the plant. “[The] Ginkgo Biloba has been cultivated for more than 2000 years in China and for some 1000 years in Japan as a source of food, shade, and beauty” (Royerac).In Buddhist and Taoist monasteries, they kept trees alive because they were venerated as old creatures as the “the Ginkgo biloba tree has a life span of 2,000-4000 years” (Z. Pang). Use became more widespread and written records show that it was used as a food source since at least 206 BCE and the Chinese soon came to honor and be proud of the tree. ‘Yes, we need to save this tree because it is very valuable, life-extending, and beautiful and there is still much to discover about it's healing properties. Moreover, our early ancestors recognized its sacred, medicinal, and practical properties. Thanks so much for sharing, Devon. I hope this piece gets the attention it deserves.
Our objective is to learn about the native Ginkgo tree from an anthropological perspective and present our findings through the five lenses of classification, ethnobotany, agroecology, environmental history and political ecology with a multimedia and collaborative approach. We choose the Ginkgo because of its prehistoric roots spanning nearly 270 million years as well as a deep history relating to humans. We will see how the traditional environmental knowledge of indigenous people that came into contact with the plant can create a better understanding of our surroundings.
A deep history
|Fossilized leaf of an ancient Gingko|
In the Jurassic Period, the Ginkgoales thrived with over 20 species. Existing all over the world, fossil records show that the tree was most diverse in North America, East Asia and Europe, and it was nonexistent in the equatorial regions. Some scientists think that the dinosaurs helped spread its seed and consequently helped it flourish during this time. Parallel in the geological timeline, as dinosaurs saw their collapse by the Tertiary Period, the Ginkgo Biloba remained the only Ginkgo left. There were likely other contributing factors to the downfall of the Biloba that occurred over the millions of years, like the great warming period that helped extinguish the dinosaurs, and subsequent ice ages, making it a living fossil. The Ginkgo Biloba is now the only living remnant of this family. The populations of Bilobas that survived were largely all “in the low coastal and interior mountains straddling the Yangtze River” (Royerac).
Since the only native Ginkgo trees that survived the extinction were confined to what is now China, when people arrived in Southeast Asia, they grew to appreciate and cultivate the plant. “[The] Ginkgo Biloba has been cultivated for more than 2000 years in China and for some 1000 years in Japan as a source of food, shade, and beauty” (Royerac).
From the time that the Ginkgo reached the European continent, it was used as an exotic ornamental tree for gardens, yards and public areas alike. As its presence in the Western world increased, so did its popularity among gardeners and landscapers.
|Photo credit: Dreamstime|
Linnaeus initially described the tree in 1771 and the specific epithet biloba derived from the Latin bis, meaning “two”, and loba, meaning “lobed”. This is seen in the shape of the leaf which is split in the middle, creating two lobes. Botanist Richard Salisbury is recognized for two names of the tree: pterophyllus salisburienus and the earlier salisburia adiantifolia proposed by James Edward Smith which may have been intended to denote a characteristic resembling adiantum, the genus of Maidenhair ferns.
The Ginkgo Biloba is classified in its own taxonomy group because of its rare seed formation. According to Arthur Cronquist, “the whole seed, except the embryo itself, is formed before fertilization, which occurs after the seeds have fallen from the tree” (130). Therefore, the classification is as follows: Kingdom-Plantae, Division-Ginkgophyta, Class-Ginkoopsida, Order-Ginkgoales, Family-Gingoaceae, Genus-Ginkgo.
Another factor that separates the Ginkgo seeds from common tree seeds is the fact that they are not protected by an ovary wall and can morphologically be considered a gymnosperm. Because of this, the Ginkgo has been placed loosely in the divisions Spermatophyta and Pinophyta but no consensus has been reached. This separation has created a great controversy among taxonomists because “…both the morphologic distinctiveness of the Ginkgo phylad and its long and diversified fossil history contribute to the consensus, although the precise rank may still be debated.” (Cronquist 46)
By the late 1800s to early 1900s, it was a popular “street tree” on the east coast in urban areas. For more than 50 years, horticulturists in parks and public places, commercial landscapes, and street tree plantings have made use of Ginkgo. In America it’s seen as an ornamental tree and “a number of selections have been released by horticulturists and foresters and a great number of cultivars developed [it] for ornamental purposes have been recorded.” Consequently, it is considered a tree for collectors. Currently, the IUCN Red List of Endangered Plants has listed the tree as endangered.
It is estimated that there are over 300 pharmaceutical and clinical studies in Europe have researched or are researching the medicinal uses of Ginkgo leaf extract EGb 761. This extract is already being used, mostly in the form of herbal pills, to treat cardiovascular conditions, lung complications, and cognitive or memory disorders. It is used in these ways due to its anti-inflammatory properties, first discovered in ancient China. In the United States, the University of Maryland Medical Center has been conducting studies on the clinical effects Ginkgo can have on conditions such as depression, ADD and ADHD, chronic migraines, and vertigo as well. While the historical medicinal uses are vast, modern medical science is discovering more uses of this versatile plant every year.
|Nutritional supplements are an example of the commercialization of the Gingko Biloba|
The seed of the female Gingko tree, although less common than the male due to the odor it produces, can be used for food products, both ceremonially in indigenous cultures and for proclaimed health benefits predominantly in western society. In Japan, the Ginkgo’s fleshy seed is roasted and eaten at ceremonial banquets and weddings, or it is ground up as a seasoning for stew or soup. It can also be used in Ginkgo tea, which some people claim brings longevity and generally better health. A 1996 sales report shows that Ginkgo-based health food products had sales upward of 270 million dollars in the United States. Humans have recognized the Ginkgo as a valuable provider for thousands of years, and with the continual advancements of our understandings of the tree, humans’ relationship with this plant isn’t likely to cease.
In addition to medicinal and food-based uses for the Ginkgo tree, the plant has also been used as an art motif and as a medium for art historically. In China and Japan especially, the Ginkgo leaf is an esteemed motif used for family crests, kimonos, jewelry and paintings or drawings.
|Source: Washington State Parks|
The ethnobotanical uses of the gingko tree, whether it’s as medicine, food or art, all contribute to the preservation and protection of the species as it is currently endangered. As they learn to acknowledge the interest and significance of the oldest living tree, people will work to preserve the rare species.
|Artwork depicting Gingko Biloba|
The recovery of the tree has even been included in policy-making across country, including Seattle. The City of Seattle’s proposed tree regulations state: “Interim tree regulations implemented to limit tree loss outside of developmental process and to prevent the cleaning of trees prior to submission of a developmental proposal”. This regulation saved a 32” dbh (diameter at breast height) Ginkgo tree from being torn down while the area around it was under construction recently.
Native growers would have to wait for the seasons to start growing the plant. This cold stratification, as it was called, meant going from cold to warm to let the seed know when to emerge. The germination would take place in sterile sand and they would have to fight off the mold that would attack the embryo before emerging.
The Japanese have used the Ginkgo in their bonsai gardens. This art form grows miniature aesthetically-pleasing plants in containers. The grower creates the plant to his ideals, more or less adapting the plant to suit a certain type of beauty. Shape, size, and proportion are considered and now there are many varieties suited to growth height, color, leaf shape, and weather conditions. Most of the Ginkgo Bonsai trees were the males since they do not produce the odorous fruit that the female does. The Japanese also used traditional environmental knowledge to take the chichi (nipples), which were the outer growths that eventually grew to the ground, and plot them upside down to make delicate leaves blossom from these little branches. Using those same techniques, they also grew the plant in some prefectures and several temples as a national monument.
|A mechanical center-pivot sprinkler irrigates a monoculture field of Gingko Biloba seedlings|
The Ginkgo tree has shown us the resiliency of certain life forms. While it was nearly extinct almost one million years ago and centralized only in China, it has been revived and now thrives across nearly every continent. Few plants have been known to survive from such a long time ago, even fewer display the longevity age-wise of an individual plant. Being such an adaptable and long-lasting plant, it has become aware to us, as a group, that Ginkgo tree is quite commonplace, including in the greater Seattle neighborhood.
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