Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba; in Chinese and Japanese 銀杏, pinyin romanization: yín xìng, Hepburn romanization: ichō or ginnan), is also known as the Maidenhair Tree. It is a unique species with no close living relatives. The ginkgo is a living fossil, recognizably similar to fossils dating back 270 million years. Native to China, the tree is widely cultivated and was introduced early to human history. It has various uses in traditional medicine and as a food.
Ginkgos are large trees, normally reaching a height of 60 to 115 feet (20 –35 m), with some specimens in China being over 165 feet (50 m) tall. The tree has an angular crown and long, somewhat erratic branches, and is usually deep rooted and resistant to wind and snow damage. Young trees are often tall and slender, and sparsely branched; the crown becomes broader as the tree ages. During autumn, the leaves turn a bright yellow, then fall, sometimes within a short space of time (one to 15 days). A combination of resistance to disease, insect-resistant wood and the ability to form aerial roots and sprouts makes ginkgos long-lived, with some specimens claimed to be more than 2,500 years old.
Ginkgo, a relatively shade-intolerant species that (at least in cultivation) grows best in environments that are well-watered and well-drained shows a preference for disturbed sites; in the “semi-wild” stands at Tian Mu Shan, many specimens are found along stream banks, rocky slopes, and cliff edges. Accordingly, ginkgo retains a prodigious capacity for vegetative growth. It is capable of sprouting from embedded buds near the base of the trunk (lignotubers, or basal chi chi) in response to disturbances, such as soil erosion. Old individuals are also capable of producing aerial roots on the undersides of large branches in response to disturbances such as crown damage; these roots can lead to successful clonal reproduction upon contacting the soil. These strategies are evidently important in the persistence of ginkgo.
Ginkgo branches grow in length by growth of shoots with regularly spaced leaves, as seen on most trees. From the axils of these leaves, “spur shoots” (also known as short shoots) develop on second-year growth. Short shoots have very short internodes (so they may grow only one or two centimeters in several years) and their leaves are usually unlobed. They are short and knobby, and are arranged regularly on the branches except on first-year growth. Because of the short internodes, leaves appear to be clustered at the tips of short shoots, and reproductive structures are formed only on them. In ginkgos, as in other plants that possess them, short shoots allow the formation of new leaves in the older parts of the crown. After a number of years, a short shoot may change into a long (ordinary) shoot, or vice versa.
The leaves are unique among seed plants, being fan-shaped with veins radiating out into the leaf blade, sometimes bifurcating (splitting), but never anastomosing to form a network. Two veins enter the leaf blade at the base and fork repeatedly in two; this is known as dichotomous venation. The leaves are usually 2 to 4 inches (5 – 10 cm) long, but sometimes up to 6 inches (15 cm) long. The old popular name “maidenhair tree” is because the leaves resemble some of the pinnae of the maidenhair fern, Adiantum capillus-veneris. Ginkgos are prized for their autumn foliage, which is a deep saffron yellow.
Leaves of long shoots are usually notched or lobed, but only from the outer surface, between the veins. They are borne both on the more rapidly growing branch tips, where they are alternate and spaced out, and also on the short, stubby spur shoots, where they are clustered at the tips.
Ginkgos are dioecious, with separate sexes, some trees being female and others being male. Male plants produce small pollen cones with sporophylls, each bearing two microsporangia spirally arranged around a central axis.
Female plants do not produce cones. Two ovules are formed at the end of a stalk, and after pollination, one or both develop into seeds. The seed is 0.6 to 0.8 inch (1.5 – 2 cm) long. Its fleshy outer layer (the sarcotesta) is light yellow-brown, soft, and fruit-like. It is attractive in appearance, but contains butyric acid and smells like rancid butter or vomit when fallen. Beneath the sarcotesta is the hard sclerotesta (the “shell” of the seed) and a papery endotesta, with the nucellus surrounding the female gametophyte at the center.
The fertilization of ginkgo seeds occurs via motile sperm, as in cycads, ferns, mosses and algae. The sperm are large, about 0.028 to 0.036 inch (70 – 90 micrometres) and are similar to the sperm of cycads, which are slightly larger. Ginkgo sperm were first discovered by the Japanese botanist Sakugoro Hirase in 1896. The sperm have a complex multi-layered structure, which is a continuous belt of basal bodies that form the base of several thousand flagella which actually have a cilia-like motion. The flagella/cilia apparatus pulls the body of the sperm forwards. The sperm have only a tiny distance to travel to the archegonia, of which there are usually two or three. Two sperm are produced, one of which successfully fertilizes the ovule. Although it is widely held that fertilization of ginkgo seeds occurs just before or after they fall in early autumn, embryos ordinarily occur in seeds just before and after they drop from the tree.
Although Ginkgo biloba and other species of the genus were once widespread throughout the world, their range shrank until by two million years ago, it was restricted to a small area of China. For centuries, it was thought to be extinct in the wild, but is now known to grow in at least two small areas in Zhejiang province in eastern China, in the Tian Mu Shan Reserve. However, recent studies indicate high genetic uniformity among ginkgo trees from these areas, arguing against a natural origin of these populations and suggesting the ginkgo trees in these areas may have been planted and preserved by Chinese monks over a period of about 1,000 years. This study demonstrates a greater genetic diversity in Southwestern China populations, supporting glacial refugia in mountains surrounding eastern Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, where several old-grow, candidates to wild populations have been reported.] Whether native ginkgo populations still exist has not been demonstrated unequivocally, but evidence grows favoring these Southwestern populations as wild, from genetic data but also from history of those territories, with bigger Ginkgo biloba trees being older than surrounding human settlements.
Where it occurs in the wild, it is found infrequently in deciduous forests and valleys on acidic loess (i.e. fine, silty soil) with good drainage. The soil it inhabits is typically in the pH range of 5.0 to 5.5.
In many areas of China, it has been long cultivated and it is common in the southern third of the country. It has also been commonly cultivated in North America for over 200 years, but during that time, it has never become significantly naturalized.
The relationship of ginkgo to other plant groups remains uncertain. It has been placed loosely in the divisions Spermatophyta and Pinophyta, but no consensus has been reached. Since its seeds are not protected by an ovary wall, it can morphologically be considered a gymnosperm. The apricot-like structures produced by female ginkgo trees are technically not fruits, but are seeds that have a shell consisting of a soft and fleshy section (the sarcotesta), and a hard section (the sclerotesta).
As mentioned, the ginkgo is a living fossil, with fossils recognizably related to modern ginkgo from the Permian, dating back 270 million years. The most plausible ancestral group for the order Ginkgoales is the Pteridospermatophyta, also known as the “seed ferns”, specifically the order Peltaspermales. The closest living relatives of the clade are the cycads,[ which share with the extant G. biloba the characteristic of motile sperm. Fossils attributable to the genus Ginkgo first appeared in the Early Jurassic, and the genus diversified and spread throughout Laurasia during the middle Jurassic and Early Cretaceous. It declined in diversity as the Cretaceous progressed, and by the Paleocene, Ginkgo adiantoides was the only Ginkgo species left in the Northern Hemisphere, while a markedly different (and poorly documented) form persisted in the Southern Hemisphere.
Modern-day G. biloba grows best in environments that are well-watered and drained – the extremely similar fossil Ginkgo favored similar environments: the sediment record at the majority of fossil Ginkgo localities indicates it grew primarily in disturbed environments along streams and levees. Ginkgo, therefore, presents an “ecological paradox” because while it possesses some favorable traits for living in disturbed environments (clonal reproduction) many of its other life-history traits (slow growth, large seed size, late reproductive maturity) are the opposite of those exhibited by modern plants that thrive in disturbed settings.]
Ginkgo has long been cultivated in China; some planted trees at temples are believed to be over 1,500 years old. The first record of Europeans encountering it is in 1690 in Japanese temple gardens, where the tree was seen by the German botanist Engelbert Kaempfer. Because of its status in Buddhism and Confucianism, the ginkgo is also widely planted in Korea and parts of Japan; in both areas, some naturalization has occurred, with ginkgos seeding into natural forests.
In some areas, most intentionally planted ginkgos are male cultivars grafted onto plants propagated from seed, because the male trees will not produce the malodorous seeds. The popular cultivar ‘Autumn Gold’ is a clone of a male plant.
Ginkgos adapt well to the urban environment, tolerating pollution and confined soil spaces.They rarely suffer disease problems, even in urban conditions, and are attacked by few insects. For this reason, and for their general beauty, ginkgos are excellent urban and shade trees, and are widely planted along many streets.
Ginkgos are also popular subjects for growing as penjing and bonsai; they can be kept artificially small and tended over centuries. Furthermore, the trees are easy to propagate from seed.
In cultivation in the United Kingdom G. biloba has gained the Royal Horticultural Society Award of Garden Merit.
The ginkgo leaf is the symbol of the Urasenke school of Japanese tea ceremony. The tree is the national tree of China, and is the official tree of the Japanese capital of Tokyo, and the symbol of Tokyo is a ginkgo leaf. Extreme examples of the ginkgo‘s tenacity may be seen in Hiroshima, Japan, where six trees growing between 1–2 km from the 1945 atom bomb explosion were among the few living things in the area to survive the blast. While almost all other plants (and animals) in the area were destroyed, the ginkgos, though charred, survived and were soon healthy again and are alive to this day.
The nut-like gametophytes inside the seeds are particularly esteemed in Asia, and are a traditional Chinese food. Ginkgo nuts are used in congee, and are often served at special occasions such as weddings and the Chinese New Year (as part of the vegetarian dish called Buddha’s delight). In Chinese culture, they are believed to have health benefits; some also consider them to have aphrodisiac qualities. Japanese cooks add ginkgo seeds (called ginnan) to dishes such as chawanmushi, and cooked seeds are often eaten along with other dishes.
Attributed from: Wikipedia