Sunday, October 30, 2016

My first time trying foraged ginkgo nuts: from identification, to eating, and preservation

When we first moved into our new home, last October, I was excited to see a ginkgo tree in the front yard. There was a handful of fruit on the ground, letting me know the tree was female (ginkgo are deciduous, and only females produce fruit). I sat back and waited for more fruit to fall.

Sadly, last year we only got about 10-12 fruits. I researched this, and learned that when a tree produces very few fruit it generally means it's in very bad shape, and most likely going to die. I suspect that the 7 year drought Texas had just been through was to blame.

This year, we had rain again, and we really baby-d the tree: pruning dead branches, extra watering, etc. She seems to have made a full recovery, as the ground this fall has been completely covered in fruit every single week!

Identification difficulty level: Beginner

Special warning: do not handle gingko fruit, especially broken fruit, with your bare hands. If you come in contact with it, wash thoroughly. People with blood clotting problems, bleeding disorders, or prone to heavy bruising shouldn't take ginkgo in any form. Nor should those who are have had seizures, pregnant women, and anyone who will be going in for surgery.  Raw ginkgo nuts are dangerous, and toxic to many. The fruit and the raw nut should not be eaten. More on all this and how to safely harvest and prepare, further on.

This is what falls every week, on ONE side of the tree! Even more must fall into the bushes or our driveway.

Ginkgo quick history & medicinal uses

Ginkgo biloba (full name), also known as the maidenhair tree, duck feet tree, silver apricot, silver almond, white nut or silver fruit, is a living fossil, the last member of it's family. Ginkgo itself would most likely be extinct as well, if it hadn't been preserved through the ice age by ancient Chinese priests who considered it holy. They grew ginkgo in their temples, and still do today. Ginkgo is very long-lived and hardy, some of the temple trees are several thousand years old, and still other ginkgo trees survived the nuclear bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Ginkgo was revered in the East as one of the most medicinal plants. It was primarily used to treat lung disease, and modern studies have shown that the nut may have properties which would inhibit the growth of tuberculosis bacteria, as well as other bacteria and viruses.

Today we use ginkgo biloba extract for brain health and memory care. It has been shown to stimulate blood flow, which can help with mental function as a whole: memory loss, some kinds of mental illness (when taken with regular medication), dementia, and depression. However, the ginkgo biloba that we use today is made from the leaves, particularly the golden autumn leaves, not the nuts. It's unclear if these benefits are also found in the nuts.

Gingko seeds may be antimicrobial: they may help kill dangerous fungi and bacteria, helping to prevent infection. (Source)

Because of it's potential to increase blood flow, do not take gingko (nuts, leaves or extract) if you are on blood thinners, have bleeding or clotting disorders, are pregnant or going to have surgery (because of the increased risk of bleeding out). 

Many people also attribute gingko with free radicle reduction, and further studies probably should be done.

Ginkgo nuts . . . not nuts

This post is about the ginkgo nuts, not the leaves, though I hope to do one about the leaves after they turn. Ginkgo nuts are not nuts at all, but rather a gymnosperm. Basically they are an edible seed. This reproduction system is most often found in conifers, which would make a ginkgo nut somewhat similar to a pine nut. Because they aren't true nuts, people with tree nut allergies may be able to eat gingkos.

The unmistakeable ginkgo leaf

Ginkgo identification and harvesting

Ginkgo trees are medium-large trees, growing up to 100 ft, but as they are frequently planted in urban areas, most will be 20-40 ft. Ginkgo are excellent for urban foraging, as the trees are very pollution-resistant, and often planted along city streets, and in urban and suburban parks.

Gingko are very easy to identify, as they are the only living tree with these distinctive, fan-shaped leaves. The tiny veins which radiate out from the petiole (leaf stalk), resemble human hair, and give the tree the nick-name "maidenhair tree". In late autumn, the leaves turn brilliantly golden yellow.

Only females will produce the fruit, and then only after about 25 years or so. So if you find a tree that doesn't have fruit in the mid-late fall, don't get discouraged, just keep looking.

You might smell the gingko fruit before you can see it. The fruit, especially when stepped on, has an extremely pungent odor, which some have described as being like dog excrement, vomit, or rancid dairy. To me it's most like vomit, or spoiled cheese.

If you do see a tree with fruit, you need to wait till it's very ripe. When ripe, the fruit will become slightly wrinkly and fall from the tree. Feel free to gather up the fruit from the ground, as you are getting to the seed within, it won't matter if the fruit is dirty.

It's essential to gather the fruit with gloves, as it contains an acid, related to the one in poison ivy, which can cause blistering and peeling of the skin! Moreover, even if you aren't allergic to poison ivy, the smell really seeps into fingers, and will take several days to get out.

If you live in an apartment, or anywhere else where you don't have access to process the fruit outdoors, I highly recommend squeezing the fruit where it fell and bringing the seeds only home with you in a plastic bag.

Ginkgo processing

I have gathered the fruit for 3 weeks now, so that I could experiment with different forms of processing.  I highly recommend you remove the fruit from the seed OUTSIDE. If you don't have access to a yard or balcony, you might want to remove the fleshy fruit wherever you found it, and only bring home the seeds. Otherwise, please work in a well-ventilated place.

Right to left: whole fruit, flesh ready for discarding, seeds in shells waiting to be cleaned.

Always where gloves when doing anything that would touch the flesh of the fruit. Also use a lot of plastic bags, as they are disposable and will keep your counters and bowls safe from the smell. The smell is very hard to get out once it's settled in.

Some blogs suggest soaking your fruit in water, to make it easier to remove the seed. I 100% DO NOT recommend this. It really doesn't make the seed any easier to remove, but it does fill small cavities in the fruit with skink-tastic water which will SPRAY STINK all over you when you try to remove the flesh. It's gross, but the smell did easily wash out of my t-shirt. It took several washing to get out of my hair.

Processing ginkgo is time-consuming. It's easy to see why the nuts can be rather costly.

Once you've removed the majority of the flesh, NOW I would suggest soaking the nuts in water, for about 2 - 4 hours. It will make the remaining bits of fruit easier to rinse away.  Don't leave them soaking in water for too long, however. I tried leaving them overnight once, and every single fly in the neighborhood was waiting for me in the morning, having been attracted to the smell.

Rinse them completely in a metal or ceramic colander (the smell is more likely to linger in plastic). If you can do it outside with a hose, great. If not, try to open the windows and keep your home as well-ventilated as possible.

Eating ginkgo

Ginkgo seeds cannot be eaten raw. They contains a toxic compound that inhibits your body's ability to absorb one of the B vitamins, and can lead to seizures, stroke, and even death. This compound is only partially broken-down by cooking, and so, even cooked, a healthy adult shouldn't consume more than 10-12 seeds per day. Children should eat half of that. Don't eat gingko more than 3 times a week.

Ginkgo should be cooked in the shell; you can roast the seeds, boil them or pan fry them. Which ever way you choose, they should be cooked for about 10 minutes straight at high heat. Boiling them will keep the strongest flavor, and roasting the mildest.

Shelled in the back, unshelled and skin removed in the front

Once cooked, crack the shell with a nutcracker, or the flat of a knife, and remove the seed. You will also have to rub away the dark, papery skin. The edible portion will be golden yellow, bright olive green or rich jade green.

Ok, so the big question: how do they taste?

When freshly cooked and still hot, I found the flavor to be ok. The seed itself is dense, soft, and slightly chewy, like a very thick gummy bear. The smell from the fruit lingers on the seed, even when shelled, but it doesn't come through in the taste. The taste is mild, and vaguely cheese-like.

However, when eaten cold the next day, they tasted God-awefull. They tasted exactly like the fruit smelled. I wondered if it was just the heating, so I reheated them. It helped a bit, but I honestly think this is just one food which much be super fresh to enjoy. Thus, I would recommend only cooking what you plan to immediately eat.

In general, unless I find a dish that I really like them in, I would probably not go through all the work of harvest and process again. It's a big job. And to me, the seeds taste just ok, at best. Of course, there are the health benefits to consider, so hopefully I find a way to enjoy them.

Storing and preserving ginkgo

Having never processed large quantiles before, I'm not really sure what the best method is. Some websites say cook, shell the nuts and freeze. Other say to freeze them uncooked and unshelled. Still others say to dry the nuts uncooked and unshelled in a cool, dark place.

I personally didn't like the nuts that were cooked and stored in the fridge overnight, so I won't be trying that method. I've decided to try both the drying and freezing strategies, with much more dried as I have limited freeze space.

In terms of yield, one tree over one week gave me about 2 plastic grocery bags worth of fallen fruit. After removing the flesh and drying, the nuts fill about 2 quart-sized canning jars. However, the seed within is smaller still. The tree has been dropping the same amount of fruit for about 3 weeks, and I would think there is still one more harvest on the branches. So a single tree is quite prolific.


  1. Totally easy to harvest yourself - just go my yearly supply !

    1. Nice post! I see we followed roughly the same process