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Wednesday, September 28, 2011

GINKGO BILOBA TREE - EXISTED BEFORE THE DINOSAURS: HISTORY, USES AND MEDICINAL BENEFITS OF MAIDENHAIR TREE


THE MAIDENHAIR TREE, GINKGO BILOBA
Darwin called this tree a “living fossil” and it is thought that it bridges the gap between ferns and cone-bearing trees. The leaves of Ginkgo biloba resemble those of the maidenhair fern, which graced many a bathroom in Britain in the late 1970s and early 80s. Fossilized leaves of this tree have been found dating back to 270 million years ago so it was on the planet before the dinosaurs. The oldest specimen recorded is 3,500 years and that’s a great age for a tree. It is the only plant in its genus, just as rock samphire is in its.
  The first Ginkgo biloba tree planted in Britain was in the first Kew Gardens and as people then didn’t know much about these trees, they planted it close to a wall for protection, later the wall was demolished, but the same tree is still standing. In 1773 Sir Joseph Banks oversaw several other ginkgo trees planted at Kew, and the original tree is one of the “Great British Trees” listed by the British Tree Council in a scheme which celebrated Queen Elizabeth II’s Golden Jubilee.
  The trees are native to a small area in China and were looked after by monks in temple gardens, for a thousand years. No one is sure whether China’s “wild” ginkgo trees are actually wild, or whether they were those planted by those ancient monks. They are highly revered because it is said that Confucius taught under a ginkgo tree. The trees are remnants of the last Ice Age and lived through that as well as the atomic bomb blast in Hiroshima in 1945. After that the ginkgo tree was the first to bud and one tree at Anraku-ji hill has scorch marks way up its trunk, as a result of the blast. The ginkgo is a real survivor. Its now extinct ancestors were Gingko adiantoide and Ginkgo gardneri.
  The tree was first recorded scientifically by Kaempfer in 1690, and prior to that we have its external uses documented by Lan Mao in his work, Dian Nan Ben Cao which dates back to around 1436 and the Ming dynasty. It was used to get rid of freckles and for skin and head sores. In 1505 Liu Wen wrote Tai Ben Cao Pin Hui Jing Yao which describes the internal use of the leaves to treat diarrhoea.
  Modern research has shown that the leaves have properties which can lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels and have some value in the treatment of angina pectoris. In the West the trees have been planted in plantations for use in medicines as Western research (there have been about 500 studies in the last 20-30 years) seems to have proved that the leaves and extracts from them are helpful in macular degeneration, improve the cognitive functions including age-related memory loss associated with Alzheimer’s and age-related dementia. They can also help in cases of depression, attention problems, information-processing and other neuropsychological problems. They also help with relieving PMT/PMS symptoms, tinnitus, vertigo, and in preventing altitude sickness. Studies have also found that they can arrest liver fibrosis associated with chronic hepatitis B and the bioflavonoids protect the cell walls and improve blood circulation. The leaves are also a help in cardio-vascular diseases.
  The trees change colour in autumn and the oldest one in China is 164 feet tall, so it makes for a spectacular sight in autumn. The trees flower and then produce a “nut” in a case which looks rather like a plum or greengage. The Chinese prize the fruit highly, although they have a foetid smell by all accounts. These only grow on female trees and I’m told that gardeners prefer male trees. The fruits are now eaten at weddings and festivals and are known as silver apricots or white nuts which can be found in canned. The Chinese traditional medicine system lays more store in the tree bark and the seeds than does Western medicine but the leaves are used for their aphrodisiac properties. The bark, leaves and seeds are used for a variety of ailments such as to heal wounds and inflammations, to strengthen the memory, for bronchial problems including asthma, for improved blood circulation and digestion. They are also used to halt incontinence and spermatorrhoea.
  The seeds have to be thoroughly cooked before they are eaten as they contain a toxin, but when roasted they are said to taste. Like pinenuts or sweet chestnuts.
  It is thought that the tree population was depleted due to deforestation, but even though there are no conservation projects to protect the ginkgo trees, there are so many planted around the world and their health benefits are widely known, so it is unlikely that they will face extinction at least in the near future.

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