Inspired by the extensive herb grounds of the Chelsea Physic Garden in London, herbalist Deni Bown has cataloged 150 essential herbs for modern living. Herbal (Pavilion Books Ltd., 2001) is an excellent source book for experts and novices alike. With Bown’s expertise and anecdotes, the story of each herb unfolds and is heavily illustrated with personal photographs and botanical name plates. This excerpt explains how gingko leaves are used in Western medicine, but in Chinese medicine even ginkgo nuts are used to treat respiratory conditions.
Herb Profile: Ginkgo
AKA: Maidenhair tree
A hardy deciduous tree, reaching 30m (100ft) tall, with bright green, fan-shaped, lobed leaves, up to 12cm (5in) across, resembling those of maidenhair ferns. The leaves turn butter yellow before falling. Trees are either male or female, and fruiting occurs only when they are grown close together, and in warm summers. The fleshy, yellow, plum-shaped fruits smell unpleasant but contain large, edible nuts. Ginkgos are native to Zhejiang and Guizhou provinces in central China.
The ginkgo tree is a botanical dinosaur. Plants alive today are unchanged from their ancestors, which grew 200 million years ago. Though common in cultivation, ginkgos were thought to be extinct in the wild until populations were discovered in central China. Ginkgos are sacred in China and Japan, and often found near temples. In China, the fruits symbolize longevity and are eaten at weddings with other auspicious plants such as mushrooms and seaweed. The oldest ginkgo in Britain dates back to 1754 and is in the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Western research into ginkgo began in the 1960s, establishing new and different uses for this ancient Chinese herb.
Cooking With Gingko Nuts
Ginkgo nuts are slightly larger than peanuts but milder in flavour. They are served roasted in Japanese bars to accompany drinks, and used fresh, canned or dried and pre-soaked in soups such as bird’s nest soup, casseroles and stir-fries. Ginkgo nuts are a traditional garnish for Korean dishes, such as shinsollo. The nuts yield an edible oil.
Healing With Ginkgo Nuts
In Chinese medicine ginkgo nuts are prescribed for asthma, bronchial congestion, coughs and incontinence. In western medicine the leaves are used. They contain ginkgolides, substances unknown elsewhere is the plant world, which improve the blood supply to the brain, eyes, ears and extremities. This results in improved memory and learning capacity, and may ease conditions such as tinnitus, vertigo, deteriorating sight and hearing, vein disorders and cramps in the legs due to poor circulation. It may also reduce the risk of a stroke. While the medical profession regards ginkgo mainly as a useful treatment for senile dementia, it has become the best-selling herbal supplement of all in Germany and France, where millions take ginkgo regularly to maintain brain power and circulation.
Notes for Gardeners
Not surprisingly, ginkgos are tough — perfectly hardy, tolerant of pollution and about the only tree able to survive the wind tunnels created by buildings. Given a reasonably sunny spot and any well-drained soil, ginkgos are superb garden and street trees that take hard pruning and are virtually pest- and disease-free — every garden should have one. Though naturally fairly columnar when young, there are very narrow forms for confined spaces and several other interesting cultivars, including a variegated one. Most trees reach about 5m (15ft) after 10 years but young saplings make beautiful container plants. Patient gardeners can propagate gingkos by sowing ripe nuts, or by semi-ripe cuttings in summer.
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This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Herbal: The Essential Guide to Herbs for Living by Deni Bown and published by Pavilion Books Ltd, 2001.