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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.