Ginkgo

The ginkgo tree precedes the appearance of the first civilizations, and it has been used for medicinal purposes since the dawn of humanity. Learn all about the history and extraordinary health benefits of ginkgo biloba.

Quick Facts
General Information
  • Common name(s)Ginkgo, maidenhair tree
  • TCM nameYín xìng
  • Scientific nameGinkgo biloba
  • Plant typeHerb
  • Native regionCentral Asia, East Asia
  • Main producer(s)China
  • Main Economic UseMedicinal
Ginkgo

Ginkgo - sometimes known as maidenhair tree - is a unique species in that it has been dated back to around 270 million years ago, predating even the dinosaurs. It is often referred to as a “living fossil” for this reason, and ginkgo biloba is the only species to have survived the plants' genetic order. It originated in China and has a secure position as a valued herb in traditional Chinese medicine. Its uses have become known across the world, and so it is now cultivated globally.

Ginkgo Medicinal Properties

Ginkgo has many uses in traditional Chinese medicine, which have been partially emulated in some herbal remedies in Western medicine. These applications have led to interest from the scientific community, and, therefore,  much research has been carried out to determine exactly which properties ginkgo possesses that may be beneficial to human health. Some of the conditions it is thought to be able to treat are:

  • Improving circulation. Compounds within ginkgo can dilate blood vessels, thereby enabling blood to flow more freely throughout the body.

  • Combating dementia. It is thought that ginkgo's ability to stimulate blood flow to the brain has the potential to stave off dementia and protect the nerve cells damaged by Alzheimer's.

Additionally, ginkgo is also popularly used for:

  • Supporting the immune system. Ginkgo contains antioxidants which can help the human body to maintain efficient functionality and resist infections.

  • Preserving eye health. The plant is thought to protect the retina, thereby limiting the chances of developing eye diseases, such as macular degeneration and glaucoma.

Although there is currently no scientific evidence to support these theories, it has been claimed that ginkgo can treat various other ailments, such as vertigo, skin diseases, and respiratory complaints including asthma.

How it Works

Over 40 chemical components are known to exist in ginkgo. However, only two - flavonoids and terpenoids - are regarded as medicinally advantageous due to their potent antioxidant activity.

Antioxidants are hugely beneficial to the human body for a number of reasons. They fight free radicals, which are pollutants that harm the integrity of cells. Minimizing the amount of these harmful compounds enables the body to sustain an effective immune system, which guards against infections such as the common cold.

Flavonoids are able to protect and support nerves, blood vessels, and retinas, and terpenoids can improve circulation by dilating blood vessels.

In spite of the extensive scientific research that has been carried out, ginkgo's complex mechanisms of action are yet to be fully understood.

Amaranth and blackberry offer protection against neurodegenerative diseases, while dong quai increases blood flow and camu camu promotes healthy vision.

Ginkgo Side Effects

Ginkgo leaves are largely considered safe for consumption. However, there are possible side effects caused by excess consumption. These include headaches, stomach upsets, and skin irritations to those who have sensitive skin.

Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should seek advice from a health professional before regular intake of any herbal supplement.

Ginkgo Cautions

The fruit and seeds contain a substance called ginkgotxin, which is poisonous and can cause vomiting, loss of consciousness, and, in extreme cases, death. If thoroughly cooked, this toxin can be eliminated, but it is generally advised not to consume the fruit and seeds at all. The medicinal properties are more highly concentrated in the leaves, so most supplements are derived from these rather than any other component of the plant.

Due to the effect it can have on circulation, people who take blood thinning medicine should consult their physician before using any ginkgo preparation in order to avoid the risk of excessive bleeding in case of physical trauma or surgery.

Quick Facts (Medicinal Properties)
  • Medicinal actionNootropic, Vasodilator
  • Key constituentsFlavonoids and terpenoids
  • Ways to useCapsules, Hot infusions/tisanes
  • Medicinal rating(4) Very useful plant
  • Safety rankingSafe

How to Consume Ginkgo

Ginkgo is not one of the most popular medicinal herbs, but its potential is acknowledged by herbalists. As such, it is available to buy in the form of various health supplements. Although it is possible to consume the fresh, raw ginkgo leaves, they are not generally easy to find.

In China, ginkgo nuts are revered and often appear in recipes for special occasion,s such as weddings and the Chinese New Year.

Natural Forms

  • Infusion. The leaves of ginkgo, fresh or dried, can be stepped in hot water for few minutes to obtain an infusion that offers all the medicinal properties of this herb.

  • Powder. Ginkgo powder is made from dried and ground leaves. It should be consumed with water, juice or milk. It is important to take the recommended doses to achieve the desired benefits without side effects.

Herbal Remedies & Supplements

  • Tincture. This preparation can be purchased or prepared at home, macerating the ginkgo leaves in neutral alcohol. Tincture is one of the preferred ways of consuming ginkgo, since it has a long shelf-life and is diluted in water before drinking.

  • Ointment. This can be suitable for stimulating blood flow for those who have poor circulation. It can treat areas affected by pins and needles as well as improve circulation in legs in those who suffer from Peripheral Artery Disease (PAD).

  • Capsules. These are perhaps the most popular form of ginkgo supplements, because they are a fast method of ingestion and come in standardized doses.

Buying

Natural Forms

Ginkgo leaves and nuts, fresh or dried, can be found in some grocery stores, but specialized health stores and ethnic markets are known to carry more regular supplies. This is less of a concern in countries with high cultivation rates, though even in these areas, it is more common to find the product during growing and harvesting seasons, in spring and early summer.

Herbal Remedies & Supplements

Ginkgo remedies and supplements have exponentially grown in popularity in modern times as research into the plant's medicinal properties becomes more widely known. Specialized health stores, online retailers, and even some supermarkets that carry herbal products can provide a wide variety of brands and concentrations.

Quick Facts (Buying)
  • Where to buySupermarkets, Farmers' markets, Specialized health stores, Online herb stores

Growing

Ginkgo is a popular plant among gardeners due to its ability to tolerate a wide variety of soils and climate conditions as well as its disease-resistant nature, and its tolerance to air pollution and urban environments.

The tree is slow growing, adapted to many ecological conditions and shows numerous adaptation in developmental patterns. A general understanding of its favored conditions is helpful when endeavoring to cultivate this plant.

Growing Guidelines

  • Ginkgo prefers deep, moist, sandy soil and requires full sun. In subtropical climates or in soils over wet or dry, the plant does not grow very well.

  • It is somewhat sensitive to frost, but can tolerate temperatures as low as 5°F (-15°C).

  • The ginkgo tree grows best in USDA zones 4 – 9, in well-drained soil, with a pH of 5 – 5.5.

  • In order to guarantee an optimal growth, adequate space should be allocated, as the ginkgo tree can spread up to 26 feet (8 m).

  • Regular irrigation and minimal application of fertilizer is advised

Quick Facts (Growing)
  • Life cyclePerennial
  • Harvested partsLeaves, Fruit
  • Light requirementsFull sun
  • SoilLoamy sand, Well-drained
  • Soil pH5.1 – 5.5 (Strongly acidic)
  • Growing habitatEverywhere except tundra
  • USDA Plant Hardiness Zones4a (From −34.4 °C (−30 °F) to −31.7 °C (−25 °F)), 4b (From −31.7 °C (−25 °F) to −28.9 °C (−20 °F)), 5a (From −28.9 °C (−20 °F) to −26.1 °C (−15 °F)), 5b (From −26.1 °C (−15 °F) to −23.3 °C (−10 °F)), 6a (From −23.3 °C (−10 °F) to −20.6 °C (−5 °F)), 6b (From −20.6 °C (−5 °F) to −17.8 °C (0 °F)), 7a (From −17.8 °C (0 °F) to −15 °C (5 °F)), 7b (From −15 °C (5 °F) to −12.2 °C (10 °F)), 8a (From −12.2 °C (10 °F) to −9.4 °C (15 °F)), 8b (From −9.4 °C (15 °F) to −6.7 °C (20 °F))

Additional Information

Plant Biology

Carbon dating has revealed that Ginkgo biloba fossils date as far back as 270 million years ago, making ginkgo the oldest tree species still in existence.

Ginkgo averages 66 - 115 feet (20 - 35 m) in height and can spread up to 26 feet (8 m). The leaves are green to yellow and are spread like a fan. After 20 to 35 years of growth, female trees will develop fruits - or seeds - which are yellow, fleshy, and spherical, resembling plums; when these fall and decay, they exude a strong, rancid smell.

A ginkgo tree can live for thousands of years, the oldest recorded being 3500 years old.
  • Classification

    The ginkgo tree (Ginkgo biloba) has a unique botanical background. It belongs to the family known as Ginkgoaceae, and it is the only remaining species within its family and genus.

  • Varieties and Subspecies of Ginkgo

    11 species of ginkgo have been recorded in fossil history, although they are no longer in existence. These former versions of the plant were natively distributed throughout the world, though the fossil record indicates that they disappeared in North America roughly seven million years ago and later in Europe 2.5 million years ago. A combination of adaptive assets has allowed the sole surviving species to flourish.

Historical Information

Ginkgo has a long history in China and appears in religious and medical texts. Confucius (551 - 479 BC) was said to have taught while sitting beneath a ginkgo tree, and Taoist philosopher Zhang Daoling is believed to have planted the tree on Mount Qingcheng circa 143 AD. This tree is still in existence and remains an important shrine to the “Heavenly Teacher”.

Ginkgo trees did not appear in Europe until 1727, when Dutch traders brought it back from Japan. They were spread across the continent, and in 1754, they were planted in England's Kew Gardens where they still stand today.

Economic Data

Harvesting ginkgo seeds, for both culinary and pharmaceutical purposes, forms an industry that provides the sole means of livelihood in China for thousands of families, who are in charge of about 90% of the plant's global production. Approximately $65 million USD was generated from exports in the country in 2011 alone. It was estimated, however, that commercial cultivation of the product was highest in France and Germany in the same year.

Popular Beliefs

As the tree ages, stalactites can develop on the trunk, which many people believe resemble the appearance of breasts. In Sendai, Japan, there is a ginkgo tree which is said to stand upon the grave of a wet nurse who was employed by an emperor. It is believed that she pledged to Buddha that she would provide milk to all babies who could not receive any from their mothers. This myth has led to many woman visiting the site to pray that they can nurse their children.

Other Uses

  • Gardening. Throughout the world, ginkgo is widely cultivated as an ornamental plant. It is also a frequent choice in city planning for adding green to urban areas across the globe.

  • Carpentry. The wood of the ginkgo tree is often favored for making furniture due to its strength, good color, and the fact that it polishes well.

Ginkgo is an interesting and unique species, which offers in the foreseeable future, which will likely reveal further medicinal properties and, consequently, more conditions that the plant could potentially treat.

Quick Facts (Additional Information)
  • Other usesFurniture/carpentry

Sources