I should have known better, but I assumed that if they were good enough for the old Chinese ladies, they were good enough for me. As a trained botanist with extensive practical knowledge of plants, I can identify dozens if not hundreds of species. And for most of them, I know their uses, including edibility.
Enter the gingko. Its triangular green leaves are unmistakable for any other plant and a common sight around town. Most of the trees are males- since female trees produce fruits that smell like a rank pile of carnivore scat, they’re not intentionally sold. But a few manage to sneak through. Because it can take years before they are mature enough to produce fruit, by the time the first foul crop comes along, people don’t want to remove a tree they’ve already invested in.
Every October, scores of little old Chinese ladies, clearly from the old country, squat among the fallen leaves, gathering the cherry-size fruit. Normally, I cycle past them, impressed that they can stomach those stinky golden globes. Durians and jackfruit, with their imposing aromas, are popular in Asian culture, so I imagine that the bite sized version have some appeal too.
Despite my own extensive urban foraging activities, I’d never touched a gingko. Then a few weeks ago, I was early to a meeting and as I strolled down the sidewalk, there was a treasure trove of gingko fruit before me. I reached down and decided to expand my taste universe by taking a tiny bite. The pulpy yellow interior didn’t taste nearly as bad as I expected. It was smooth and mildly creamy, a little tart, but not strikingly so. Visions of eating dog turds exited my mind. I wasn’t sold, but I made myself take two more tiny bites so I could truly say that I’d eaten a gingko, then I pitched the plump oval nut and skin into the bushes.
Back at home, I began to wonder if there was more to the gingko than I experienced. The internet informed me that the nuts, once roasted, are really the prize. The pulpy outside apparently contains the same toxic chemical found in poison oak. Although I’ve spent thousands of hours in the woods, I’ve never had a case of it; I didn’t react to the gingko either.
I’d never seen the ladies eating the fruit, and assumed they were too busy harvesting. Days afterwards, as I rolled past the local gingko patch, I noticed they were gathering the fruit with plastic bags over their hands.
I felt like a foolish and lucky child who should have paid more attention to his elders. But at least I’m now a child who knows one more species and its uses.