Ginko Leaf Japan

The Ginkgo Tree: A Link to the Dinosaurs

The gingko tree can be seen planted by the side of roads all over Tokyo. Its fan-shaped leaf is the official symbol of the Tokyo Metropolitan area. The leaves change to a brilliant yellow before falling in late November/early December. Gingkoes can also be widely seen in Manhattan and in Seoul. As the tree originates in China, it thought that they were originally planted abroad by Korean and Chinese immigrants.

So what’s the big deal? Its just a hardy tree that can grow in urban areas, right? This isn’t just any tree: in many ways it is living fossil, unchanged in 200 million years. It is thought to be the oldest tree on earth, a living link to the age of the dinosaurs.

Millions of urban dwellers know the ginkgo primarily as a street tree, with elegant, fan-shaped leaves, foul-smelling fruits, and nuts prized for their reputed medicinal properties. There’s a lot of Chinese literature from before 1,000 years ago, and it doesn’t mention the ginkgo, while it does mention a lot of other plants. The evidence points to the fact that ginkgo was probably always a rather rare tree, one that has been fairly recently domesticated, probably for its fruit.

Ginkgoes have long been valued for their healing properties, their medicinal properties, particularly for helping memory. The outer part of the female seed produces a smell somewhat like vomit (!), so most cities prefer to plant male gingkoes. The nut in the centre, once shelled, is very tasty, and is commonly cooked in late autumn in chawan-mushi, a steamed custard like dish, with tiny amounts of bamboo shoot and chicken plus gingko nuts within it.

It doesn’t get really cold in Tokyo until mid December, so when you see piles of yellow gingko leaves on the ground you know that the real cold winter weather will be coming soon.

Ginkos on Road in Tokyo

Ginko Trees in Tokyo

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All photos and text copyright © Tony Smyth