History of Ginkgo: Chinese Medicinal Herb

There are many reasons why ginkgo is a popular symbol. Ginkgo trees are not only beautiful, they are also an important medicinal plant with a fascinating story. The ginkgo is considered to be a living fossil and is the only remaining representative of the Ginkgoales order, which had 19 original varieties. Fossils from these plants date back 270 million years, putting the ginkgoes on the planet before the dinosaurs. At one time they were common and widespread throughout Asia, Europe, and North America. If you look closely at a ginkgo leaf you will notice how the veins are all the same in width, beginning at the stem and fanning out, and there are at most two lobes. This is quite different and simplified compared to the leaves of more modern tree species, like maples, which have multiple lobes and a central vein that branches out into smaller and smaller veins. Like redwoods, ginkgoes have very long life spans, with some individuals estimated to be more than 3,000 years old.

Ginkgoes were first discovered by Europeans in the 17th century in Japan by the German botanist Englebert Kaempfer. Up until then, the plant was considered to be extinct by many Europeans, as it was known mostly through fossil records. The tree, however, had survived in Asia in Buddhists monasteries and Shinto shrines, where they had been revered and cultivated since around 1100 AD. These monasteries and shrines acted as ancient nature preserves, offering protection for the trees and conserving the natural landscape around them. Ginkgo is thought to originate in eastern China in the Xuangcheng province, spreading first to Japan, around the same time that Zen Buddhism was introduced there.

Ginkgo Leaves

Ginkgo is used as a medicinal plant in both eastern and western herbal traditions. In the west, the leaves are taken to enhance blood circulation and oxygenate the heart. They are also known to increase the supply of oxygen to the brain, making them applicable for conditions marked by memory loss, such as Alzheimer's. They are anti-oxidant, reduce blood pressure, and inhibit clotting. They are also used for tinnitus, vertigo, hearing loss, impotence, and Raynaud's disease. In the east, the seed is favored over the leaf. It is prescribed for chronic coughs with wheezing and copious sputum. It is also taken for vaginal discharge and cloudy urine. The seeds are first mentioned in Chinese herbals published a long time ago, way back in the Yuan Dynasty (1280-1368).

Today ginkgoes are widely cultivated and propagated in both the east and the west, primarily as ornamental landscape trees. They are very hardy and are not easily susceptible to environmental pollutants so they thrive in places where the air quality is poor, such as New York and other cities. There are even some ginkgoes in Japan that survived the 1945 atomic blast at Hiroshima in an area where all other life was obliterated. These trees are all still alive today, located in temples or public gardens. Because of this, the Japanese consider the ginkgo tree to be a powerful symbol of hope. Though the seeds of the ginkgo are edible and considered a delicacy in Asia, they are covered in a fleshy coating which some consider to be untidy for landscaping. This is why the seedless male tree is preferred to the female as an ornamental. This preference, unfortunately, has made it difficult for the tree to propagate itself naturally, so ginkgoes are still considered to be an endangered plant. Still, for a tree that was almost extinct not too long ago, the ginkgo is doing quite well.

The ginkgo is an important symbol for many reasons. First, it is an amazingly ancient tree. Surely there is an inherent wisdom in a plant that has survived for 270 million years. Second, this is a tree of great beauty. Who hasn't appreciated the ginkgo in the fall, with its beautiful golden leaves? Third, the ginkgo is a powerful medicinal plant. It has been used in many healing traditions and over many centuries. Even today it is one of the top ten herbal supplements. And finally, the ginkgo is an example of how humans can consciously choose to help save a rare and endangered plant. This began almost 1,000 years ago with the Chinese Buddhist monks and continues today all over the world where this plant is appreciated and revered.

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