Posted by: Matt Kelley | 14 November 2008

The Glorious Gingko

The Ewha University campus features some pretty spectacular horticulture, including lots of golden ginkgo trees.

When I first came to Seoul, I quickly noticed there was a tree of choice lining the streets. Seoul doesn’t have many landscaped medians or sidewalks, so I felt that this seemingly unremarkable tree, with its rough dark bark and small, pale-green, fan-shaped leaves, was a disappointing choice. Why couldn’t Seoul have imported Jinhae‘s beloved cherry trees or some of the big maples found in New England towns?

These questions only became more pointed in early October, when these trees dropped their stinky little fruits all over the sidewalk. Step on one and you’d regret it the rest of the day. But this time last year, when autumn truly swept in and the temps fell, these previously unremarkable trees morphed. Suddenly their hohum leaves turned solid gold, which contrasted beautifully with their black bark.

Anyway, being the plant dork that I am, I should have known that these were Ginkgo biloba trees, known here in Korea as 은행 (eunhaeng), or bank trees, and popular in Asia thanks to Buddha’s reported affection for them.

As their recent number one fan, let me tell you a bit about the fabulous Ginkgo.

Like many Seoul universities, Ewha Womans (sic) University is located on the slopes of An Mountain (안산). There are some pretty gingko-lined streets that wind up the mountain and offer some great views of Seoul.

Why the peculiar name, you ask? It’s thanks to two mistakes. When Chinese characters are translated into Japanese, multiple pronunciations are possible. Leave it to a German botanist named Engelbert Kaempfer, to mispronounce “icho” as “ginkyo” when he first laid eyes on the tree in 1690 while visiting Japan. Error #2 occured when his notes were transcribed, turning the “y” into a “g”, thus, “ginkgo”.

But, there’s far more to this living fossil, which has no close relatives and has survived basically unchanged over 270 million years and a couple of mass extinctions. It makes sense that Seoul city planners would choose it, since it is disease and insect resistant and long-lived. Re: the latter, there’s supposedly a 3,000-year-old specimen in China, and four trees located within two kilometers of the Hiroshima atomic bomb site, were among the few things to survive the blast. They are still there today.

A ginkgo close-up.

Back to the present. As I mentioned earlier, around the same time as the trees’ golden confetti was falling on the streets, the females of the species were casting their cute little fruits to the street. I’ve seen plenty of ajummas (married ladies) shaking trees down to collect them en masse. But the berries that didn’t make it into those ladies’ kitchens usually got crushed beneath a foot or a tire. The feeling and sound of them popping beneath your soles are fun… but stretching at the gym and noticing the weirdly strong ginkgo “poop” smell on your shoes isn’t.

But a brief whif of stinky air is a small price to pay for the beauty they bring (though maybe Korean planners should go the way of some of their American counterparts, who only plant male trees). Although you may be more familiar with ginkgo thanks to the nutrition supplements made from its leaf extracts for memory, concentration or vertigo, please don’t forget its best asset, the wonderful golden leaves that transform Seoul’s streets each autumn.



  1. Great pics…Hmmm, I never thought that Gingkos could grow tall. I associate gingkos from the nearby Chinese health shop.

  2. Ginkgo Biloba is also a medicine in China.
    In many place in the world,it is also a supplement.



  3. Hi Tony and nytsmasher76,

    Thanks to you both for your comments. I’ve seen some pretty huge ginkgo trees in Korea and have heard that there are even larger specimens in China. A truly wonderful tree!

  4. Hi Matt,
    Love your photo essay on the ginkgo tree ( I always hesitate over the spelling!) . My Lonely Planet book on Korea is especially fattened with a collection of the golden leaves. The eunheng namu is also one of my favourite trees and it would be interesting to know where’s the oldest ginkgo or the biggest tree is in Korea.
    BTW, Malaysian ajummas of Chinese descent like to use the yellow ginkgo nuts in desserts.

  5. Hi Selene,
    Yes, the spelling always trips me up too. that darn Englebert Kaempfer. ;)

    Best, Matt

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