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Ginkgo Tree Symbolism and Meanings: The Ultimate Guide 

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Gingko biloba, a living fossil with a botanical history dating back millions of years, symbolizes endurance, duality, and hope. Beyond its distinctive fan-shaped leaves, it holds deep historical and cultural significance.

If you’ve ever walked through a park where these trees were planted, you’ve undoubtedly noticed their presence. They are distinct and beautiful of all deciduous trees with a fearless appearance; ginkgos can also surprise you with the distinctive smell emitted by the ripe ginkgo seeds of the female trees.

Beyond their aesthetic appeal, ginkgo trees bear a cultural significance that transcends time, weaving through art, architecture, and poetry.

Their rich symbolism goes back 200 million years, connecting with civilizations even when dinosaurs existed.

Historical Background of Ginkgo Trees

Ginkgo Biloba tree characteristics

Ginkgo biloba, commonly known as Ginkgo or gingko is a very slow-growing, massive tree that appeared on Earth alongside dinosaurs 200 million years ago (Ginkgo leaf fossils from the genus Ginkgo first appeared in the Middle Jurassic). Known also as the maidenhair tree, Ginkgo is the sole remaining member of its evolutionary family, Ginkgoaceae, making it the world’s oldest surviving tree species.

 In autumn, the leaves of the ginseng have a beautiful golden color, like maple leaves. The tree grows to a height of up to 35 meters and a diameter of 3-4 meters (exceptionally up to 7 m).

Uses of Ginkgo Seeds, leaves and wood

Ginkgo Has Separate Male and Female Trees

Like the willow or laurel tree, Ginkgo biloba is a dioecious tree producing male and female ginkgo trees. Male plants produce tiny pollen cones with sporophylls, whereas female plants produce fruits with seeds encased in a fleshy, yellow-brown outer layer after wind pollination. The fruits look appealing but contain butyric acid that smells like vomit or rancid butter; therefore, male trees are more often planted as street trees rather than female plants. 

fruit of ginkgo tree
female plant with fruit of ginkgo tree

The Symbolism of the Ginkgo Tree

In Asia, the Ginkgo is considered a secret tree and is often found near temples, altars or other places of worship.

symbol of peace, friendship, and hope

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe played a pivotal role in establishing the ginkgo leaf as a symbol of peace, friendship, and hope in Europe. His poem initiated the triumphal rise of the Ginkgo in the region, particularly highlighting its leaf as a representation of friendship. The typical shape of the ginkgo leaf became a prevalent element in Art Nouveau designs following Goethe’s influence, and this motif has endured through the years, maintaining its popularity in contemporary design.

The enduring fascination with ginkgo trees has led to their widespread planting in many cities, where they serve as powerful symbols of peace, friendship, and hope.

fern pine
male plant with cones

symbol of love and duality

Ginkgo trees were strategically planted near Taoist and Buddhist temples to symbolize the concept of yin-yang. In this philosophical framework, yin represents the absence of sunlight (night/dark), while yang is associated with sunlight (day/light). These two opposing yet harmonious forces are viewed as the feminine essence of earth (yin) and the masculine essence of the sun (yang). Ginkgo trees, being dioecious, are categorized as male or female. Male trees produce pollen, while females produce the malodorous seeds known as a Ginkgo nut. In the cultural contexts of China and Japan, ginkgo nuts hold significance and are associated with longevity and as symbols of hope.

Symbol of resilience, health and endurance, a living fossil surviving the atomic blast in Hiroshima

Resilient survivors, ginkgos have deep roots and can tolerate adverse conditions, including wind, pollution, and fire. Notably, these trees withstood the 1923 Kanto earthquake and even survived an atomic blast, the 1945 atomic bomb on Hiroshima, even when located less than 1½ miles from the epicenter. Despite scorched bark, stripped branches, and the destruction of a nearby temple, the ginkgo trees remarkably survived and leafed out the following spring.

Ginkgo biloba is also China’s national tree, representing the nation as a symbol of longevity and resilience.  

 The Symbolism of the Ginkgo Tree

Historical Background of Ginkgo Trees

During the Early Jurassic, the first fossils resembling ginkgo trees appeared around 175-200 million years ago. In the following Mesozoic Era, the genus underwent diversification and global dispersion, but by the Cenozoic (65 million years ago), all but two ginkgo species became extinct. 

Although the predecessor of Ginkgo biloba and other species of the genus were once widespread throughout the world, its habitat had shrunk by two million years ago. Ginkgo fossils disappeared from the fossil records everywhere except in a small area in central China, where the modern species survived.

Fossils Middle Jurassic, Scarborough, North Yorkshire
Fossils Middle Jurassic, Scarborough, North Yorkshire

Ginkgo has been commonly cultivated in North America for over 200 years and in Europe for nearly 300 years.

The first introduction of ginkgo biloba to the Western world occurred in 1690 when German botanist Engelbert Kaempfer discovered the tree in Japanese temple gardens. Unfortunately, Kaempfer’s Amoenitates Exoticae in 1712 appears to have the plant’s common name spelled incorrectly.

However, because of its status in Buddhism and Confucianism, the Ginkgo has also been widely planted in Korea and Japan since the 14th century, 

Ginkgo trees, such as the Neukguri Ginkgo in Samcheok-si, Korea (designated as Korea’s natural artifact in 1986), and those at Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine in Japan, aged 1,500 and 1,200 years, respectively, have challenged theories suggesting Chinese origins of Ginkgo. 

There is evidence that the largest and oldest of Ginkgo biloba trees may be older than surrounding human settlements.

Holmstad Hotel Central
Ginkgo leaf in art and architecture

For centuries, artists have found inspiration in the aesthetic allure of the Ginkgo and its leaves. 

In the book “Ginkgo: The Tree That Time Forgot”, the author Peter Crane said: “Its elegance and clean curves connect easily to an aesthetic that began as a reaction against the machine.

Ginkgo was also taken up in Art Nouveau; there are spectacular renderings of ginkgo twigs and leaves in the Art Nouveau architecture of Nancy and Prague.”

In Eastern Asia, this leaf became a recognizable motif, gaining particular importance in Japan, where you can find it in paintings, poetry, and the designs of family crests (kamon). By the 17th century, it adorned swords and ceramics, extending to buckles, jewelry, kimono, and various textiles. More subtle instances include the tool for plucking shamisen strings (a traditional musical instrument), fashioned in the shape of a ginkgo leaf, and sumo wrestlers’ topknots (oichomage). Even the stylized ginkgo leaf resembles the “T” symbolizing the prefecture of Tokyo.

In literature, Goethe In 1815, penned a poetic masterpiece centered around the ginkgo leaf, using it as a symbol to express his romantic friendship. Within the poem, Goethe draws a parallel between his affection for Marianne Von Willemer and the dual lobes of the ginkgo leaf.

large ginkgo leaves
large ginkgo leaves

Uses of Ginkgo Seeds, leaves and wood

Seeds

Ginkgo seeds are edible and were particularly used in Asia. After removing their foul-smelling coating, the kernels were soaked and roasted, reducing the concentration of a toxin present in the raw seeds. These seeds can be found plain or used in both sweet and savory dishes, remaining a popular food in Eastern Asia, especially in China, Korea, and Japan.

Additionally, the oil pressed from ginkgo seeds was used for lighting, heating, rituals, and in traditional medicine. Compounds from the seeds were employed to address issues such as cavities, skin conditions, and respiratory illnesses. Even today, ginkgo compounds are utilized to treat conditions like coughs, asthma, and bladder infections.

seeds of ginkgo biloba
seeds of ginkgo biloba

Leaves

In the Western world, people focused on the green leaves, not the seeds, for medicinal purposes. Ginkgo leaves contain many flavonoids, providing colorful pigments and are believed to protect against diseases. Doctors prescribed ginkgo leaf extract to improve blood flow, reduce stickiness, and address concentration and memory issues, including dementia like Alzheimer’s. Despite doubts in conventional medicine, these extracts remain popular, especially in Europe.

Wood

The soft, pale Ginkgo wood is highly resilient and durable. In Asia, it is used to make panel houses, board games, and chopping boards. It is also well suited for wood carving and, due to its smooth surface, for making Japanese tissue paper.

Ginkgo Biloba tree characteristics
Vladka Merva on December 4th, 2023

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