Saturday, November 30, 2019

A Living Fossil

Today, on her YouTube food channel emmymadeinjapan, Emmy shows and tells about how to collect the nuts of the ginkgo tree and harvest them for food.  I've embedded that video in this post, to the left.

Unlike a lot of the other foods Emmy has featured, ginkgo nuts need to be handled and consumed very carefully.  The fruit containing the nuts contains urushiol, the substance that causes the itchy rash most people associate only with poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac.

Making matters worse, the fruit when crushed has a strong, offensive smell.  Some compare it to vomit.  Emmy compares it to a combination of vomit and "dog poop."  It's almost as if the fruit is warning you not to consume it.  Perhaps worse, the nuts, though tasty, are only safe to eat after being roasted, and even then they still contain too much toxin for it to be safe to consume more than about 10 nuts per day.

Part of its oddness may lie in the fact that the ginkgo tree is a biological holdover from a much earlier time.   The ginkgo tree is the only living species of its division, and fossils with evidence of the tree 's existence that date from 270 million years ago demonstrate how old the species is.  Individual trees live a long time, due to a number of characteristics, such as having deep roots, insect-resistant wood, and the ability when useful to start growing roots on the bottoms of branches, outside the soil.  The tree is native to China, and has long been cultivated in China, though it has recently also been cultivated successfully in Europe and America.

Why cultivate it?  It's not just because the nuts are tasty--though Emmy assures us that they are, and they have long been considered a delicacy in Asia.  But ginkgo also seems to have properties that alleviate many human ills.  They have been used in traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years, and modern medicine is finding evidence that derivatives of the plant may allleviate symptoms of certain aliments, including circulatory problems and the pain that can accompany them, and dementia.  Unfortunately, the plant can cause dangerous side effects as well, and our incomplete knowledge of its effects make it difficult to know how much is a safe dose.

Despite its long life, many aspects of the ginkgo remain a mystery to man.  However, that doesn't stop people from harvesting ginkgo seeds to roast and eat them.  Once again, the ginkgo reminds us that people will eat almost anything if it doesn't instantly kill them and they find a benefit to eating it.  


  1. Interesting! I must watch this later when I get a chance.

    1. Most of my details about the ginkgo tree I got from Wikipedia and another Internet article I found, both of which I link to in my post.