FAN-SHAPED LEAVES of the ginkgo tree are shown in this drawing from Flora Japonica, a book written by 19th-century German physician Philipp Franz von Siebold. The extract obtained from the leaves (below) is one of the most widely used herbal treatments aimed at improving memory. Image: FROM FLORA JAPONICA, BY SIEBOLD AND ZUCCARINI, LEIDEN 1835/42, IN THE LEIDEN UNIVERSITY BRANCH OF THE NATIONAL HERBARIUM OF THE NETHERLANDS
The ginkgo tree (Ginkgo biloba) is remarkable in many ways. Although indigenous to Korea, China and Japan, the tree can be found in parks and along city sidewalks around the world. It may grow as high as 40 meters and live for more than 1,000 years. Ginkgo fossils have been dated as far back as 250 million years ago, and Charles Darwin referred to the tree as "a living fossil."Nowadays, however, the ginkgo's primary claim to fame is the extract obtained from its fan-shaped leaves.
The use of ginkgo leaf extracts can be traced back for centuries in traditional Chinese medicine. Today ginkgo biloba is perhaps the most widely used herbal treatment aimed at augmenting cognitive functions--that is, improving memory, learning, alertness, mood and so on. Ginkgo is especially popular in Europe; officials in Germany recently approved the extract for treating dementia. In the U.S. the National Institute on Aging is currently supporting a clinical trial to evaluate the efficacy of ginkgo in treating the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease.
This article was originally published with the title The Lowdown on Ginkgo Biloba.