I had no idea. Of course I’ve been bombarded with ads for the wonderful memory properties of gingko biloba although I never tried it. I didn’t even know it was a tree, nor did I know it grew not only in the United States but right in our own City Park. My tree course mentioned there was a single species, family, and phylum for this tree, but it wasn’t until I started to research it that I learned the tree is a living fossil and hasn’t changed in over 200 million years!
According to the USDA map, the Ginkgo tree was introduced to the US. It is not widely distributed throughout the states, but seems to be very popular in New York and four or five other Eastern states. Mississippi also has an affinity for this tree. The Gingko appears to be able to withstand the stress of city living, which might be one of the reasons they are very popular in New York City. According to one source, there are 21,611 Ginkgo trees in the city, a map or which can be seen here.
Once you see a Gingko leaf with its fan-like shape, the trees seem easy to identify. Although there is only one tagged specimen in the park, I’m sure I found a leaf near a denuded tree very far away, too.
Gingkos are often called the oldest trees or most unique plant on earth as they are the only species in their class, have not changed much in 200 million years, and have no close relatives. Peter Crane, Dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, has written a book about the tree, Ginkgo (Yale University Press, 2013) and was interviewed about the tree here.
I did not encounter any seeds from the one tree in City Park, but they are said to be both messy and smelly, producing a compound that is common in rancid butter. Crane says they smell like vomit. Due to this, usually only male trees are planted. I’m assuming this tree is male, although the same source indicated that the trees don’t produce seeds until they are thirty-forty years old.
Similar to the tenet “form follows function” of the Arts and Crafts and other architectural movements, the herbal uses of this tree seem to relate to its biological history. Most of the medicinal uses relate to many problems associated with aging, such as heart trouble, macular degeneration, tinnitus, as well as it best known use as an herb to improve memory. Components of the plant have long been used in Chinese, Japanese, Indian and Indonesian medicine.
For those of you who might like to explore more about this fascinating tree, there is an all-encompassing blog that includes a history of some of the most interesting Gingko trees from around the world, the use of the leaves in art, and even a Gingko lullaby.
To find this tree, also known as the Maidenhair tree, look for A72 on the map. Basically it is across from the entrance to City Park Pool, right in front of the picnic shelter #6 on the corner of S. Bryan and City Park Drive. Without its leaves, it looks much smaller than this picture!