Once common in North America and Europe, all but the ginkgo biloba trees of the ginkgo species became extinct hundreds of millions of years ago. The remaining ginkgo trees tend to live long lives thanks to great resistance to disease, pests and fire. The name ginkgo comes from the phonetic pronunciation of a Japanese name for the tree.
Fossil records show ginkgo trees date back more than 200 million years in China. Many of the trees died during the ice age, with only a handful of gingko biloba trees surviving in the Orient. Surveys in China indicate some living gingko trees are more than 3,000 years old. At least 180 trees surpass 500 years old, with the largest grove of old trees existing in the Tian Mu Shan Nature Reserve in China's Jiangsu Province.
Introduction to Europe
The Dutch East India Company brought back the first gingko tree to Europe in 1700. In 1727, Dutch traders returned to Europe with more gingko trees from Japan. The tree became known as the maidenhair tree since the leaves looked like the maidenhair fern. Gingko trees planted in England's Kew Gardens in 1754 still stand today.
Introduced in 1784 to the United States, the first gingko tree was looked upon as a curiosity. Before long, the trees found homes in gardens, parks and along streets as an ornamental tree. By the late 1800s, gingko trees dotted American cities thanks to the tree's ability to combat air pollution in harsh urban environments where other trees could not survive.
Earliest recorded reports of gingko use for medicinal purposes comes from the book, "Materia Medica," written in 1330 and published in the mid 1500s. Written by Wu Rui, one of China's official medical authorities, the book contains information on hundreds of items used for food and medicine, including the gingko nut. Most of the uses for the nuts helped with treatment of lung diseases. Gingko fruit extract was also known to combat the cause of tuberculosis, a disease that persists in China to this day.
Modern Medicinal History
Chinese medicine still includes the use of extracts from the gingko tree. In the past century, Western countries have shown renewed interest in the healing properties of gingko leaves. Clinical trials found gingko effective for helping vertigo, hearing problems, short-term memory loss and depression among other medical maladies. Gingko supplements now rank among the best-selling herbal medications in Europe and the United States.