Ginkgo is sometimes called a living fossil because there are no other members of its species and its age and uniqueness set it apart from other plants. It might owe its survival to the fact that it tolerates drought as well as pollution. Some trees are believed to be 2500 years old. Fossils from the Jurassic Period have been found.
The tree is hardy to zone 4 but grows slowly. Both male and female plants are required in order to produce seed, but the fruit (on the female plant) smells like rancid butter so female trees are seldom used for ornamental purposes.
In Chinese medicine, it was primarily the cooked seed that was used, but recent studies of the leaves suggest that they, too, have considerable medicinal benefits, including promoting circulation, especially to the brain. It is also used to treat tinnitus where the presumed cause is free radical damage or impaired circulation. The leaf contains a compound unknown in any other plant, ginkgolides. These have anti-allergenic actions that make ginkgo suitable for use in treating asthma.
The most popular uses of ginkgo leaf today are for conditions related "cerebral insufficiency" characterized by loss of memory, dizziness, confusion, and anxiety.(1) Traditionally, it is used for many of the diseases common to elderly persons, such as deafness, macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy, memory loss, and vertigo. However, due to the success in protecting workers at the Chernobyl nuclear disaster site, it is being studied more and more for its radioprotective properties.
My interest in ginkgo began when visiting Hiroshima and learning that six trees within 1-2 kilometers of the atomic bomb blast survived.