While best known for its health benefits, Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) is a beautiful tree with distinct fan-shaped leaves that turn a beautiful gold color in the autumn. It is a tree with a long and interesting history.  The only remaining species of the Ginkgophyta division of plants, ginkgo is considered a living fossil. In fact, it was long considered extinct until limited stands were found in Eastern China. Today, it is widely cultivated throughout China (70% of the world’s ginkgo trees are in China), the rest of Asia, and around the world. It is a long living and tenacious plant and gained notoriety for being one of the only living things to survive Hiroshima. These qualities are also why it is revered as a sacred tree in the Taoist tradition.

The nut, known as silver almond, has a long history of use in China as both food and to support lung health, decrease excess mucus, and for digestive disorders. The leaf was first mentioned in traditional Chinese medical texts in the 15th century for external use with various skin disorders (Dharmananda et al., 1997).  The common uses of ginkgo today, to increase circulation and improve cognitive function, are relatively modern.

Beginning in the 1920s research began into the use of ginkgo leaf to support healthy circulation and support various related conditions, such as cognitive function. Research focused on ginkgo’s antioxidant content, particularly its flavonoids, including ginkgolides. In the 1970’s ginkgo was introduced for use in Europe and is still one of its most popular herbal remedies and included in the Commission E Monographs. Today, ginkgo is used primarily for circulatory related conditions (Yang et al., 2015; Le Bars, et al., 1997; Mahady, 2002; Johnson et al., 2006).

Due to its high antioxidant content, ginkgo is also used in many skin products to support healthy skin tone and condition aging skin.

The nut is still used as a food throughout Asia and valued for its health benefits. It is often served in various dishes at special occasions, such as weddings and New Year celebrations.

Note:  Ginkgo should not be used with anticoagulant medications. 

Erin Smith has been working with plants for 25 years and is medical herbalist and ethnobotanist. She is the creator of Plant-Passionate Living™, an interactive program designed to help people find greater health and vitality through a deeper relationship with plants. Erin is the Founder and Director of the Center for Integrative Botanical Studies.

Dharmananda S and Fruehauf H (1997) Ginkgo, Institute for Traditional Medicine, accessed at www.itmonline/arts/ginkgo.htm.

Johnson S, Diamond B, Rausch S, Kaufman M, Shiflett S, Graves L (2006) The effect of Ginkgo biloba on functional measures in multiple sclerosis: a pilot randomized controlled trial, Explore: The Journal of Science and Healing, 2(1), 19-24.

Le Bars P, Katz M, Berman N, Turan M, Freedman A, Schatzberg A (1997) A placebo-controlled, double-blind, randomized trial of an extract of Ginkgo biloba for dementia, Journal of the American Medical Association, 278(16), 1327-1332.

Mahady, G (2002) Ginkgo biloba for the prevention and treatment of cardiovascular disease: a review of literature, Journal of Cardiovascular Nursing, 16(4), 21-32.

Yang G, Wang Y, Sun J, Zhang K, Liu J (2015) Ginkgo biloba for mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials, Current Topics in Medical Chemistry, Epub ahead of print.