Ginkgo: Putrid Perfection

by Green Deane

in Grain/Nuts/Seeds, Medicinal, Plants, Trees/Shrubs

Going Nuts Over Ginkgo Biloba Nuts

Ginkgo fruit smells God-awful bad

Though the Army sent me to Japan I didn’t see my first Ginkgo biloba (GINK-go bye-LOW-buh) tree until I attended the University of Maine after I was out of the military.

It was planted in front of Bailey Hall. The hall was named for Dr. Francis Bailey. I had his petite wife cum Keyboard Commandant for piano lessons. Nina Bailey was actually a dear diminutive lady with high pianoforte standards I would never meet. She had hands horribly ravaged by arthritis, quite a burden for a pianist. But I remember her, the hall and the ginkgo well. Of course it was wrong of me but back then I always associated the Orient with jungle heat and I thought it amazing the Ginkgo would survive Maine winters. Of course, now I know it is a temperate tree and I am amazed it grows here in Central Florida.  There is one officially at Mouse World but they are also planted in upscale Winter Park, about four miles from here. In fact, when I want some leaves for medicinal uses I pluck some from a tree in a private yard about a quarter of a mile from my house.

First you have to clean the seeds, outdoors

These three species are very ancient: The Ginkgo, the Sassafras and the Monkey Puzzle Tree. Fossil records tell us they were all around for dinosaur lunch some 270 million years ago.  Even now there are some living Ginkgos in Asia and Japan said to be more than 4,000 years old.  In fact, it is reported that Buddhists monks preserved the tree in their monasteries and that ginkgo have all but disappear in the wild.

Once shelled and cooked the seeds are delicious

Ginkgos, like Chinese Elms, is a tree that favors urban dweller for they are exclusively planted as choice landscape trees. Most cities have several planted. The down side is usually only the male tree is planted but there are enough of the ladies to go around.

Why this sexism regarding Ginkgos? Because the fruit, which is only on the female tree, has a most disgusting smell. A million years ago that might have attracted a reptilian seed-spreader but to us it smells like cheese-ladened vomit in an outhouse. Yes, I’ve been there. That’s the bad part. The good part is when you smell that disgusting aroma the kernels in the fruit are ready to collect and are delicious, after you extract them, clean them, roast and shell them. They are worth it. A delicacy.

The leaf uniquely has veins that fan out

The fruit is cantaloupe colored and the seeds resemble pistachios. Where rubber gloves when you collect the seeds. If possible do not take the entire fruit home, just the seeds and clean as soon as possible. Roast them at 350F for an hour, then crush the seeds between towels tapping gently with a hammer.

Or, you crack them raw with a nutcracker then boil the seeds in salty water while rubbing them with a ladle to get the brown membrane off. Then salt and serve. Some brave souls, and perhaps misguided, put them in microwaveable containers and nuke them until they pop. Ginkgo nuts can be used in soups, stuffings, desserts, meat dishes, poultry dishes and vegetarian dishes.

The ancient Chinese name for Ginkgo is yingo, or silver fruit,. This got changed Ginnan in Japanese but in Kanji characters that can also be pronounced Ginkyo.  When Engelbert Kaempfer, the first Westerner to see the species, wrote down the name in 1712 his “y” was misread as a “g” and we’ve been saying it wrong since. Biloba means two lobes and refers to the lobed leaf. It is also called the Maidenhair Tree referring to the fan-like leaflets of the maidenhair fern.

Fossilized Ginkgo Leaf

And now a medicinal use and warnings. Ginkgo leaf is added to Pennyworts to reduce blood pressure (dried, taken as a tea.) People with a vitamin B6 shortage should not eat cooked Ginkgo seeds. Children under six should not eat more than five (5) cooked seeds a day. No one should eat cooked Ginkgo seeds every day. Skipping a day is recommended.  In a well-fed society eating a few cooked seeds in season is not a problem. But if you eat 50 cooked seeds AND have a poor diet (and or you’re a kid, thus less seeds needed) it can be an issue. There is a chemical in Ginkgo seeds (4-methoxypyridoxine) that is anti vitamin B6. Thus if you are experiencing a famine and low on B6 and you eat a lot of Ginkgo seeds it’s a combination for misery. 4-methoxypyridoxine is thought to be related to the chemical that makes China Berries non-edible. Also some people get contact dermatitis from handling fresh Ginkgo fruit. The fruit have some urushiol, the active chemical in poison ivy, which is why you wear gloves when collecting them.

 Green Deane’s “Itemized” Plant Profile

IDENTIFICATION: Large shade tree  to 120 feet. Long horizontal branches creating a pyramidal crown. Leaves leathery, fan shaped, one and a half inches long and three inches wide. Parallel veins radiating from stem point. Female flowers single or in pairs, male flowers a catkins; fruit cherry like, yellow, very fetid smelling.

TIME OF YEAR: Autumn, when fruit drops or is ready to drop

ENVIRONMENT: Full sun, prefers moist, deep, sandy soil. Won’t grow well in subtropical climes. Planted in numerous cities, parks, college campuses and palatial homes.

METHOD OF PREPARATION: Roast cleaned seeds or boil shelled kernels.


Before modern medicine a common mode of thinking was called the Doctrine of Signatures. It was occasionally by chance right so it continued as a means of exploring herbs for use. For example, the ginseng root often grows looking like stick figure of a human. This was via the Doctrine of Signatures a good reason to see if it was good medicine for humans.  Likewise, the ginkgo leaf resembles a cross section of the human brain and its two lobes. And, research shows it does benefit cognitive functions.

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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Paul August 17, 2016 at 12:33

In Northampton, Mass. the squirrels loved Ginkgo seeds; even dug up those I tried get started. A neighbors dog could be seen munching the seeds!


Rorie December 8, 2015 at 19:31

According to more than one herbalist I have studied under, Ginkgo leaves are protective against radiation, in all forms. When the trees start shedding their leaves simply lay a clean sheet under the tree on a not so windy day and you’ll have plenty of leaves in no time without compromising the tree.

I had the good fortune to happen upon two shedding male trees, young ones with smallish leaves, in Newport, Rhode Island, in a down town park on the first Sunday in November. I collected a large paper grocery bag full of leaves and dried them in my produce dehydrator upon returning home. Then I crushed them into half gallon mason jars. They should last me through the year. I will grind them further with a mortise and pestle and fill capsules with the powder to be taken daily.

When I say radiation, I’m talking air travel, too much sun, emf pollution from wifi, nuclear fallout, etc. Visitors to Hiroshima and Nagasaki some years after the bombs were dropped described a scene of total devastation but for the surviving ginkgo trees.


Jake Karpfinger October 20, 2015 at 23:55

T was cutting lawn at a friends house and saw fruit on the ginkgo tree in Brookfield wi I picked some fruit and I am going to plant them on my farm in Waterford wi I will also plant a transplanted coffee tree


Geoff Zeiger October 8, 2015 at 21:44

Skunk cabbage meristems are perfectly edible.


bob dagit December 9, 2014 at 15:34

i think i heard that bartram’s garden in philadelphia has an older gingko than the one in savannah


Green Deane December 9, 2014 at 17:29

Probably could be… I have no idea how old the tree in Savannah is. I was just looking at historical dates that could limit it’s age.


Tamara December 27, 2013 at 17:41

Anyone know which insects or animals consume the ‘fruit’?


yana November 7, 2015 at 15:14

i consumed today ginkgo fruits ( 3 berries ) and it tasted sweet then it gave me some burning sensation , so far im alive and feeling good.
PS , I have seen a lot of ginkgo berries on the ground but so far I don’t see any bird or squirrel eating them 🙂


Margreet October 17, 2013 at 18:13

Green Deane, yours is the only accurate description of the gaggy ginkgo fruit that I’ve ever seen. I salute you.


Greg White August 25, 2013 at 16:08

I have a Ginkgo tree that produces light green fruit that does not change color at the end of the season. They simply drops green and the seeds are exactly as you have shown. I have roasted them as well, very good. The odd part is that there is absolutely no odor at any point in the process. Are there an varieties that you know of that match this?


Ellen August 30, 2013 at 21:51

I’ve only encountered one female ginkgo that I know of (Minneapolis, MN), and the fruit had no detectable smell.

Maybe some people don’t have the gene for the chemical receptors necessary to smell it? Or maybe some gingkos are bred to lack the rancid butter odor.


RLM March 10, 2017 at 13:45

Anyone who finds ripe female ginkgo fruit without a bad odor should save the seeds intact, and either plant them, or send them to someone like Oikos tree crops to be trialed.

That said, I have heard that if the fruit is ripe but not allowed to become overripe, or rot, it has little or no odor. I have not had the opportunity to verify this, but anyone interested in growing ginkgo trees may want to consider this. Apparently, if we pick up the fruit promptly, the odor may not be a problem at all.


Tabetha Trogdon April 10, 2013 at 09:46

Mr. Deane, do you know if the leaves of the ginkgo tree are edible? My aunt with six grown sons has a tree in her backyard from which she said the leaves are edible and that they all snack on them from time to time. My husband and two kids ate several leaves each this past summer while visiting and didn’t have a problem. I’m not finding anything online that says the leaves are edible, just the nut inside the seed.


Green Deane April 10, 2013 at 13:23

The leaves are medicinal, that I know. Among other things they are used to reduce blood pressure. Consult and herbalist, however, as I am not an herbalist and medicinal uses are beyond my kin and paygrade.


clovis_dalton June 20, 2012 at 15:53

Evening People,

Enjoyed the discriptives. One note, not every one is familiar with the identification of edible species. Would it be possible to have a more detailed descriptive? ie…Photos of the edible plants in its natual culture? A more exacting description of the foliage,bark,fruit. Yes i am aware this is not Horticus.

Poision ivy, fact or fiction…..If you eat the young berries of poision ivy do you gain some immunity? My Grandfather swore by this. No i have never partaken.

One other note .

My grand parents used to pick VERY young skunk cabbage and use it as they would greens of any other edible plant! Any knowledge of this?

No i have not thouroughly searched this/your site…. i plan to do so in the future.

I have enjoyed my reading thus far.


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