Perhaps you’ve seen in the news or read in an article about the possible health benefits of ginkgo biloba for improving memory and for slowing down cognitive function decline in dementia patients. More than just the focus of a modern day health craze, however, ginkgo is one of the earth’s most curious plant species. Author Peter Crane delves deeper into the history of the plant in his book Ginkgo: The Tree That Time Forgot, published this spring by Yale University Press. Check out a few fascinating facts about this unusual plant species!:
1. Ginkgo is a botanical oddity. Like the platypus among animals, it is a single peculiar species with no close living relatives.
2. The iconic fan-shaped leaves of ginkgo have been identified as fossils from every continent. Living ginkgo trees have changed little from those that lived 200 million years ago.
3. Almost driven to extinction by climate change, wild ginkgo trees survive only in China. But you can see ginkgo today in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, on the streets of Manhattan, and in parks and gardens in all but the warmest and coldest places on our planet.
4. In the East, Ginkgo has been cultivated for a thousand years for its edible seeds, and many ancient trees are greatly revered by followers of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Shintoism.
5. The oldest living ginkgo trees in Europe date from 1730–1750, when ginkgo was introduced from the East. The oldest ginkgo in North America was planted in the 1780s in the Pennsylvania garden of John Bartram, a prominent early American botanist
6. Today ginkgo is grown as a botanical curiosity and a resilient street tree; extracts from ginkgo leaves have also become a top-selling herbal medicine that is believed to improve memory and learning. Its efficacy, however, remains controversial.
Peter Crane is Carl W. Knobloch Jr. Dean and professor, School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, Yale University, and former director of The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, UK. He divides his time between Oak Park, IL, and New Haven, CT.