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Ginkgo Biloba Nuts (Urban Foraging)

My small city is loaded with Gingko trees.  Sometime in the last century, either a town administrator or the guy in charge of landscaping decided it would be a great idea to beautify the city streets with Gingko trees.  The Gingko is very pretty in the summer, lush with dark green fan-shaped leaves. 


Gingkos really shine in the fall, however.  Beautifully bright yellow in fall, the fan-shaped leaves litter the ground making a pretty yellow contrast to the light brown dead grass and dark brown of the fallen hardwood leaves. The large trees also look interesting without their leaves; they grow tall and wide - up to 100 feet or more, but 50' are the norm in my neck of the woods. The wood is dark and knotty, the limbs branch in a gnarled kind of way. 



Female Gingko Biloba tree in the fall


Beautiful tree, check. Wild edible, check. So why don't more people plant Gingko trees?  The problem is the male, or non-fruiting, trees are indistinguishable from the female, or fruiting trees when they are young and being planted. 
The bane of most landowners is the fruit.  Like most fruit- or nut-bearing trees, many non-foragers fail to appreciate the produce from urban trees. Think of the bad rap the Black Walnut (Juglans nigra) has received all these years; my whole life I have been hearing about how these grand trees are not worth the hassle of the dark-staining fruit littering the ground, having to be picked up by the resident yard cleaner. 
Like the Black Walnut, the Gingko produces fruit that is a little bit of a nuisance.  The apricot- colored fruit is a little *ahem* smelly.  The smell has been likened to vomit, and I have to agree.   The first time I identified a Gingko tree was by the smell.  Emerging from a doctor's office, I thought "who puked next to my car?!"  But then became more than thrilled when I saw the fruit that covered the ground.
 
Although I use the term "fruit," the reality is that Gingko "fruit" is really a seed with a smelly seed coat called a sarcotesta.  The pomegranate is another example of a seed with a sarcotesta. Like the pomegranate, the seed of Gingko is edible. A caveat is that Gingko seeds taste nothing like pomegranate seed, but the comparison isn't fair at all, since the sarcotesta of the pomegranate is edible, lending the seeds their tart-sweet flavor.
Gingko trees have been considered living fossils.  Like turtles and alligators, Gingkos haven't changed much over the millenia, as fossilized gingko leaves look a lot like the modern species.  The G. biloba is the only known living species of the Gingko genus. An interesting factoid about these trees is that scientests are unsure which taxonomic division to place them.  Taxonomists agree the trees are gymnosperms, or "naked seeds," but are they more like conifers or cycads?  Fortunately, you don't have to sit on the edge of your seat for long, because a recent genomic study found that Gingkoales are most likely a sister group to cycads! Whew, glad that is resolved :-)
So, with taxonomy questions answered, I returned later with nitrile gloves and heavy-duty ziplock bags to collect the seeds.  Hmmm, maybe I should have a clothespin for my nose..
The easiest way to harvest the seeds is to take a seat (after clearing away any smelly tree litter; wouldn't want to sit on that!).  A low, portable camp seat would probably be of great benefit.  With a ziplock in one hand, I pick up the seed and roll it between my gloved fingers until the seed coat is removed.  Within less than an hour I am able to collect 2 gallon-sized ziplock bags of the seeds.


Seed of Gingko biloba with outer layer removed

Once at home, I spread out the nuts to dry. Judging the reaction of my family to the stench that permeated my house, in the future this will be done outside. 

Gingko biloba nuts
So what to do with the 2 gallons of nuts?  First, you need to shell them.  After drying, the shells remove fairly easily; much easier than walnuts or pecans.  There are reports that the raw nut is toxic; how toxic is up for debate, and appears largely anecdotal.  However, the issue is easily resolved with cooking the nuts.
How to further prepare the nuts presents a small quandary. While the trees are commonly found in the United States, the recipes are not.  Fortunately the trees have been utilized in China for years, and the internet makes it easy to find something to do with the fruit of your labor. 
I brown my Gingko nuts in a little oil and spices, sprinkle with sea salt, and eat like any other nut.  The nuts can also be added to soups or stews, which may moderate the flavor.  Like any wild food that is not normally present in the Standard American Diet, the nuts are a little of an acquired taste.  My girls don't like the taste at all, thinking the nuts bitter. 
I think they are flavored with the effort of collecting them, the knowledge that they are the gift of a renewable resource from Mother Earth, and they are free! :-) 
Happy Foraging!!
 

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