The ginkgo biloba tree has been referred to as a “living fossil.” This is because it is the only living member of the Ginkgoales family. Its earliest fossils date back to 270 million years ago, which puts this tree on earth with the dinosaurs. The ginkgo biloba tree was prominent throughout North America, Europe and Asia during the Cretaceous period (144 million years ago.)
Global cataclysmic events caused a decrease in the number of Ginkgo and the extinction of dinosaurs and large reptiles, who helped disperse the seeds, may have also contributed to this decline. The Ginkgo disappeared from the North American fossil record approximately 7 million years ago and from Europe about 2.5 million years ago.
At that point scientist believed it had become extinct, but it was later found in Japan. Engelbert Kaempfer, a German physician and botanist, found it in 1691. It had survived in China in the monasteries and temple gardens. The Buddhist monks had cultivated the tree since the 1100s. It later spread by seed to Japan and Korea. The ginkgo seeds were brought to Europe from Japan in the early 18th century and later that century to America. Most of these earlier trees were males.
The trees in China were structurally the same as those fossils from millions of years before. There were some minor changes in ovule size, a decreased number of ovules, and reduction of individual ovule-stalks.
Mention of the ginkgo first appeared in Chinese literature in the 11th century during the Sung dynasty. After that point it appeared throughout Chinese art and poetry. Its “fruits” (seeds) and leaves were often praised in literature. The first mention of the seeds in herbals appeared during the Yuan dynasty (1280-1368.) After the Sung and Yuan dynasties the Ginkgo became widely cultivated across China.
The seed was used as a food source as early as the Han dynasty (206 BC to 220 AD.) The seeds were compared to walnuts and mentioned as a substitute for lotus seeds. In 1578 it is noted that the seeds were consumed at weddings, with the shells dyed red. Japanese textbooks mention the ginkgo as early as 1492 as a dessert at tea ceremonies. In the 18th century they became a side dish for sake. The grilled nuts are still eaten today in Japan when drinking sake.
The medicinal use of ginkgo has a long history. The leaves and seeds (nuts) have both been used in traditional medicines. The earliest possible mention of the medicinal use of the leaves may have been during the Han dynasty between 206 BC and 220 AD. The first confirmed mention in literature is in 1436 which mentions the use of the leaves as a treatment for head sores and freckles. Western medicine began to look at the use of Ginkgo in the 1950s.
One of the most famous ginkgo biloba trees was located in Hiroshima. It was growing near a temple that was 1.1 kilometers from the blast center where the atom bomb was dropped by the American forces during World War II. The tree was still standing after the bomb was dropped, even though the temple and everything surrounding it was destroyed. The tree began to bud again after the blast with no apparent deformities. The temple was later rebuilt around the tree.
Individual trees may live as long as 3000 years, just another reason to call this plant a “living fossil.” This tree provides a direct link to our prehistory through its unchanging structure.