Ginkgo, ginkgo, maidenhair tree
(Ginkgo biloba – Family Ginkgoaceae)
Ginkgo is the only survivor of a group of primitive trees which grew all around the world in the very distant past. Its alternate name, the maidenhair tree, refers to its resemblance of the fanlike leaflets of the maidenhair fern. The petrified ginkgo forest near Ellenberg, Washington (USA), is estimated to be fifteen million years old, and, according to scientists, was growing before the birth of the Rocky Mountains. This area was a rain forest at that time and was destroyed when the earth opened and belched molten lava to cover the area where the forest stood. Since the trees were green and wet and no oxygen was present to permit them to burn, they turned to stone and thus became a petrified forest.
Better known in the health food industry as a medicinal herb, this lone species was saved by cultivation in northern China and has since been reintroduced into Europe and Asia as a garden tree. Western plant nurseries usually sell only the non-fruiting male plants because the fruits from the females emit a highly disagreeable smell. The fruit is round, plum-sized, and brown, with scanty flesh. The shell is smooth and buff-coloured enclosing a thin brownish skin. The soft pale-yellow kernel turns a pale green when cooked. Both the shell and the skin should be removed before cooking. Traditional practice in China was to leave the nuts until all the flesh had rotted away, then roast the remains. By then, the nuts were odourless, but few Americans go that far. Canned nuts are a very poor substitute.
In Japan, the nuts are used in some dishes; and, in China, gingko nuts appear in any dish with the name “eight-jeweled.” The Chinese also paint the nuts and string them up as decorations at weddings; and, during the festivities, the nuts are cracked open and eaten.