The golden leaves of Ginkgo trees are just spectacular this week.

I have a special fondness for this species: its kin date back to the Permian (>250 million years ago), so the Paleozoic lives on right here on our campus lawns. The Ginkgo is also remarkably robust and is able to live in even the most polluted cities. Ginkgo trees were among the few living creatures to survive the horrors of the atomic bombs that were dropped onto Japan. Survivors, indeed.

In addition, the species refuses to conform to our narrow notions of botanical beauty. It is dioecious (female and males are separate individuals) and female trees are currently scattering their extremely pungent seeds all over tidy lawns (the smell is butyric acid — rancid butter). The philosophical underpinning of a lawn denies the realities of biology: death and sex are nowhere in evidence on a “nice” lawn. The Ginkgo violates these standards with great flair. I can smell the trees from at least fifty meters away.

Squirrels can smell them too. When I took my Field Investigations class to see the Ginkgos, we counted ten gray squirrels under one tree, gathering the seeds. The squirrels were as fat as bear cubs. A great harvest. Humans also like the cleaned centers of the seeds, but be warned, the fleshy outer layer is highly allergenic to some people.

Ginkgos are gymnosperms, so they technically don’t make true “fruits.” The fleshy outer layer is actually just the soft husk of the seed, not formed from an ovary wall as with true fruits. (Botany, it turns out, is mostly about sexual organs, an obsession that got Linnaeus into trouble — a colleague reportedly called his focus on sexuality “loathsome harlotry.”)

11 thoughts on “Ginkgo

  1. Robley Hood

    Two years ago, I saw an older couple collecting the “fruit” under the big tree by Walsh-Ellett. I was surprised, as I didn’t know anyone ate them. I tried to ask them what they were going to do with the “fruits,” but they didn’t speak English. I must admit that I’m still curious.

  2. Sonia Kay MacKenzie

    That yellow-apple-yellow color is an absolute joy to me each fall. Never seen anthing like it.
    Didn’t know about using the fruit, except for some vitamin supplements. I’ll look for uses too. Kay

    1. Thy

      Indeed, it’s a delicacy in Asian cuisine and quite frankly yummy. My bf’s Mom makes a delicious dessert that contains the gingko seeds. I think she boils them to take out all the poisonous residue and peels them to get the “inner seed” if you will call it that. They go well in a sugary honey dessert with quinoa, bird’s nest, and some other medley of Asian herbs.

        1. Catharine Friend

          So enjoying your “Ramble”. Found you after visiting Sewanee recently, reading your book, and hiking around your mandala area. So inspired to learn more! A question. What is the best field magnifying glass? Thank you so much!

          1. David George Haskell Post author

            Thank you! Delighted that you enjoyed the book and the forest. The hand lens that I use is:
            …it does not have super-fancy optics and so is affordable, easy to carry. I find it works really well to crack open the doors of awareness just a little more.
            For more expensive lenses (that tend to be higher power and much harder to use; I use one only in excellent light for close work on snail shells) scroll to the bottom of the page at this link and check out the 20x:

  3. BeeHappee

    Very cool. I had never noticed the seeds before, will have to keep the eyes – or should I say noses open next time. Kids here love the ginkgo leaves, I had to carry only five million dozen in the pockets. The seed as food link is no longer working, but looks like interesting read on Linnaeus. Thank you!

  4. Mollie

    In Massachusetts, the gingko turned several weeks ago… then dropped its leaves seemingly all in one day, leaving a statuesque silhouette. Thankfully, a male, so no stinky fruit.


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