Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba; in Chinese 銀杏, pinyin romanization, yín xìng), frequently misspelled as "Gingko", and also known as the Maidenhair Tree after Adiantum, is a unique species of tree with no close living relatives. The ginkgo is classified in its own division, the Ginkgophyta, comprising the single class Ginkgoopsida, order Ginkgoales, family Ginkgoaceae, genus Ginkgo and is the only extant species within this group. It is one of the best-known examples of a living fossil, because Ginkgoales are not known from the fossil record after the Pliocene.
For centuries it was thought to be extinct in the wild, but is now known to grow in at least two small areas in Zhejiang province in Eastern China, in the Tian Mu Shan Reserve. However, recent studies indicate high genetic uniformity among ginkgo trees from these areas, arguing against a natural origin of these populations. Therefore, it has been suggested that the ginkgo trees in these areas appear to have been planted and preserved by Chinese monks over a period of about 1000 years. Whether native ginkgo populations still exist has not been demonstrated unequivocally and is therefore uncertain.
The relationship of Ginkgo to other plant groups remains uncertain. It has been placed loosely in the divisions Spermatophyta and Pinophyta, but no consensus has been reached. Since Ginkgo seeds are not protected by an ovary wall, it can morphologically be considered a gymnosperm. The apricot-like structures produced by female ginkgo trees are technically not fruits, but are the seeds having a shell that consists of a soft and fleshy section (the sarcotesta), and a hard section (the sclerotesta).
Ginkgos are very large trees, normally reaching a height of 20–35 m (66-115 feet), with some specimens in China being over 50 m (164 feet). The tree has an angular crown and long, somewhat erratic branches, and is usually deep rooted and resistant to wind and snow damage. Young trees are often tall and slender, and sparsely branched; the crown becomes broader as the tree ages. During autumn, the leaves turn a bright yellow, then fall, sometimes within a short space of time (1–15 days). A combination of resistance to disease, insect-resistant wood and the ability to form aerial roots and sprouts makes ginkgos very long-lived, with some specimens claimed to be more than 2,500 years old: A 3,000 year-old ginkgo has been reported in Shandong province in China.
Some old Ginkgos produce aerial roots, known as chi chi (Japanese; "nipples") or zhong-ru (Mandarin Chinese), which form on the undersides of large branches and grow downwards. Chi chi growth is very slow, and may take hundreds of years to occur. The function, if any, of these thick aerial roots is unknown.
Leaves of long shoots are usually notched or lobed, but only from the outer surface, between the veins. They are borne both on the more rapidly-growing branch tips, where they are alternate and spaced out, and also on the short, stubby spur shoots, where they are clustered at the tips.
Female plants do not produce cones. Two ovules are formed at the end of a stalk, and after pollination, one or both develop into seeds. The seed is 1.5-2 cm long. Its fleshy outer layer (the sarcotesta) is light yellow-brown, soft, and fruit-like. It is attractive in appearance, but contains butanoic acid and smells like rancid butter (which contains the same chemical) or feces when fallen. Beneath the sarcotesta is the hard sclerotesta (what is normally known as the "shell" of the seed) and a papery endotesta, with the nucellus surrounding the female gametophyte at the center.
The fertilization of ginkgo seeds occurs via motile sperm, as in cycads, ferns, mosses and algae. The sperm are large (about 250-300 micrometres) and are similar to the sperm of cycads, which are slightly larger. Ginkgo sperm were first discovered by the Japanese botanist Sakugoro Hirase in 1896. The sperm have a complex multi-layered structure, which is a continuous belt of basal bodies that form the base of several thousand flagella which actually have a cilia-like motion. The flagella/cilia apparatus pulls the body of the sperm forwards. The sperm have only a tiny distance to travel to the archegonia, of which there are usually two or three. Two sperm are produced, one of which successfully fertilizes the ovule. Although it is widely held that fertilization of ginkgo seeds occurs just before or after they fall in early autumn, embryos ordinarily occur in seeds just before and after they drop from the tree.
Where it occurs in the wild it is found infrequently in deciduous forests and valleys on acidic loess (i.e. fine, silty soil) with good drainage. The soil it inhabits is typically in the pH range of 5 to 5.5.
The scientific name Ginkgo appears to be due to a process akin to folk etymology. Chinese characters typically have multiple pronunciations in Japanese, and the characters 銀杏 used for ginnan can also be pronounced ginkyō. Engelbert Kaempfer, the first Westerner to see the species in 1690, wrote down this pronunciation in his Amoenitates Exoticae (1712); his y was misread as a g, and the misspelling stuck.
At least morphologically, G. gardneri and the Southern Hemisphere species are the only known post-Jurassic taxa that can be unequivocally recognised. The remainder may have been ecotypes or subspecies. The implications would be that G. biloba had occurred over an extremely wide range, had remarkable genetic flexibility and, though evolving genetically, never showed much speciation. The occurrence of G. gardneri seems a Caledonian mountain endemic, and the somewhat greater diversity on the Southern Hemisphere, suggests that old mountain ranges on the Northern Hemisphere could hold other, presently undiscovered, fossil Ginkgo species. It seems unlikely that ancient DNA from subfossils can shed any light on this question, since the distribution of Ginkgo was already relictual in late prehistoric times. While it may seem improbable that a species may exist as a contiguous entity for many millions of years, many of the Ginkgo's life-history parameters fit. These are: extreme longevity; slow reproduction rate; (in Cenozoic and later times) a wide, apparently contiguous, but steadily contracting distribution coupled with, as far as can be demonstrated from the fossil record, extreme ecological conservatism (being restricted to light soils around rivers); and a low population density.
Ginkgo has been used for classifying plants with leaves that have more than four veins per segment, while Baiera for those with less than four veins per segment. Sphenobaiera has been used to classify plants with a broadly wedge-shaped leaf that lacks a distinct leaf stem. Trichopitys is distinguished by having multiple-forked leaves with cylindrical (not flattened) thread-like ultimate divisions; it is one of the earliest fossils ascribed to the Ginkgophyta.
In some areas, most intentionally planted Ginkgos are male cultivars grafted onto plants propagated from seed, because the male trees will not produce the malodorous seeds. The popular cultivar 'Autumn Gold' is a clone of a male plant.
Ginkgos adapt well to the urban environment, tolerating pollution and confined soil spaces. They rarely suffer disease problems, even in urban conditions, and are attacked by few insects. For this reason, and for their general beauty, ginkgos are excellent urban and shade trees, and are widely planted along many streets. The ginkgo is the official tree of the city of Kumamoto, and two leaves form the symbol of the University of Tokyo, the main campus of which is famous for its numerous ginkgos.
Extreme examples of the Ginkgo's tenacity may be seen in Hiroshima, Japan, where four trees growing between 1–2 km from the 1945 atom bomb explosion were among the few living things in the area to survive the blast (photos & details). While almost all other plants (and animals) in the area were destroyed, the ginkgos, though charred, survived and were soon healthy again. The trees are alive to this day.
The nut-like gametophytes inside the seeds are particularly esteemed in Asia, and are a traditional Chinese food. Ginkgo nuts are used in congee, and are often served at special occasions such as weddings and the Chinese New Year (as part of the vegetarian dish called Buddha's delight). In Chinese culture, they are believed to have health benefits; some also consider them to have aphrodisiac qualities. Japanese cooks add Ginkgo seeds (called ginnan) to dishes such as chawanmushi, and cooked seeds are often eaten along with other dishes. The seeds are available canned, sold as "White Nuts", and can be found in many Asian food stores in the West.
When eaten by children, in large quantities (over 5 seeds a day), or over a long period of time, the raw gametophyte (meat) of the seed can cause poisoning by MPN (4-methoxypyridoxine). MPN is heat-stable. Studies have demonstrated that convulsions caused by MPN can be prevented or terminated with pyridoxine.
Some people are sensitive to the chemicals in the sarcotesta, the outer fleshy coating. These people should handle the seeds with care when preparing the seeds for consumption, wearing disposable gloves. The symptoms are dermatitis or blisters similar to that caused by contact with poison-ivy. However, seeds with the fleshy coating removed are perfectly safe to handle.
In 2002, a long-anticipated paper appeared in JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) titled "Ginkgo for memory enhancement: a randomized controlled trial." This Williams College study, sponsored by the National Institute on Aging rather than Schwabe, examined the effects of ginkgo consumption on healthy volunteers older than 60. The conclusion, now cited in the National Institutes of Health's ginkgo fact sheet, said: "When taken following the manufacturer's instructions, ginkgo provides no measurable benefit in memory or related cognitive function to adults with healthy cognitive function."Out of the many conflicting research results, Ginkgo extract may have three effects on the human body: improvement in blood flow (including microcirculation in small capillaries) to most tissues and organs; protection against oxidative cell damage from free radicals; and blockage of many of the effects of platelet-activating factor (platelet aggregation, blood clotting) that have been related to the development of a number of cardiovascular, renal, respiratory and central nervous system disorders. Ginkgo can be used for intermittent claudication.
According to some studies, in a few cases, Ginkgo can significantly improve attention in healthy individuals. The effect is almost immediate and reaches its peak in 2.5 hours after the intake.
Some studies suggest a link between ginkgo and the easing of the symptoms of tinnitus.
Ginkgo supplements are usually taken in the range of 40–200 mg per day.
A study conducted in 2003 by the Department of Dermatology, Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education and Research in Chandigarh, India concluded that Ginkgo is an effective treatment for arresting the development of vitiligo
In ongoing studies, a research team led by Luan Luo, PhD, associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy, found that giving mice with the human Alzheimer’s gene the ginkgo extract called Egb 761 improved the process of making new nerve cells in part of the brain much affected by the disease. The team found evidence that the protective effect of the extract also could be due to decreasing senile plaques or the clumping of beta-amyloid in the brain tissues.
Ginkgo side effects and cautions include: possible increased risk of bleeding, gastrointestinal discomfort, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, headaches, dizziness, heart palpitations, and restlessness. If any side effects are experienced, consumption should be stopped immediately.
Ginkgo biloba</i> Extract for the Treatment of Intermittent Claudication: A Meta-analysis of Randomized Trials.
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Rapid Determination of Terpene Lactones in Ginkgo Biloba Commercial Products by HPLC with Evaporative Light-Scattering Detection
May 01, 2004; A rapid, sensitive, and reproducible high performance liquid chromatography gradient method has been developed for the...