HISTORY AND CULTURE

The Tree that Withstood an Atomic Bomb

27 Jul 2013 06.23 am by K. Daniel






Few plants are associated with strength, survival and old age. The giant sequoias of California for example are recognized as being one of the largest tree species. One specimen, dubbed General Sherman, weighs in at about 6,000 tonnes, is nearly 84 metres tall, and estimated to be approximately 2,200 years old. Another close relative is the coast redwood, Sequoia sempervirens, known to be one of the tallest plants in the world. A tree dubbed Hyperion was measured to be over 115 metres tall.


Similarly, the banyan tree of India, Ficus benghalensis, is tightly entwined in religion and mythology. The Great Banyan of Kolkata currently holds the world title for widest tree in the world. At 250 years old, it occupies 14,500 square metres of land in the form of clonal bodies and aerial roots sharing an interconnected root system instead of one single tree trunk. The main trunk of the tree itself no longer exist, having decayed and removed in 1925, however the plant continues to live on as a collective whole.


Such is the tenacity of living plants, many of which have survived countless setbacks and hindrances in the form of disease, parasitic infestation, the elements, natural disasters, and human settlement. But what about an atomic bomb?


The ginkgo or maidenhair tree, Ginkgo biloba, is a living fossil. The only member of its division, it has no close relative, most if not all of which only existed in the Mesozoic era. The last recognizable fossil has been traced back to 270 million years. Once common throughout various parts of the world, wild plants only occur in several areas within China, mostly deciduous forests and valleys. Domestic cultivation has been successful, plantations ranging from South China to North America where the plant was introduced more than 200 years ago. It is grown for its edible seeds which are also used in traditional medicine, as shade trees in urban areas, and as ornamental plants such as bonsai.  It is resistant to disease, pests, and tolerates a wide range of soil and temperature conditions. It is no surprise therefore that some claim that they can grow up to be 2,500 years of age.


Its hardiness is best displayed by six specimens found in Hiroshima, Japan, where they have been planted near the atomic bomb explosion in 1945. According to Cor Kwant, author of the Ginkgo Pages, all six survived the initial explosion. In the aftermath it was observed that one of these trees, which was situated 1.1 km from the epicentre near the Housenbou Temple, actually began to bud while the buildings surrounding it, including the temple itself, was totally destroyed.  The trees continue to survive up until this day, and are widely regarded as a symbol of hope.


Even before the 1945 bombings, the ginkgo tree has been revered as a sacred tree, being planted near temples for its protective properties. Confucius was also said to love pondering and teaching his students under the ginkgo tree. And perhaps maybe score a snack or two while doing so.


The ginkgo seed is an edible, plump, fleshy structure which may be either light green or yellow (depending on harvest time) enclosed in a white shell, not unlike pistachio nuts. Used as both a culinary ingredient and in traditional medicine, normally it is eaten dried or cooked rather than raw, and is highly prized in Asian countries especially China and Japan where the plants are commonly grown. According to Chichi Wang, contributing author of seriouseats, raw seeds taste mildly sweet with bitter undertones. The flavour of dried or cooked seeds on the other hand is reminiscent of chestnuts or sweet potatoes. Texture of the raw seeds is understandably crunchier than cooked seeds, simply because cooking removes some moisture making the flesh denser and chewier. Cooking also allows easier removal of the white seed coat that encloses the kernel, similar to chestnuts. The kernels inside then may be eaten as it is, mixed into savoury stir fries, soups, stews, or sweetened with sugar syrup and incorporated into desserts. The pulp surrounding the seed has been described to be smelling of funky cheese and sewage. Flavour wise, it is said to be reminiscent of plums, although the flesh is less commonly eaten because it is mildly toxic.


Harvest is relatively straightforward. The fruits pulp which surrounds the seeds possess a very distinct odour as it degrades due to butyric acid content, which characterizes the smell of rancid butter and several other unpleasant materials. As the aim of harvest is the seeds, the condition of the pulp is not much of an issue. At maturation, the pulp changes colour from green to a light yellow. At this point the fruit is considered ripe and may be harvested, or may be allowed to go off, which aids in the removal of the flesh during processing later on. Pulp removal may also be done by soaking the fruits first, which softens the flesh making separation easier.


The white coat contains an allergen which may affect sensitive individuals with a mild form of poison ivy poisoning (itches, rashes), and so gloves are advisable when picking the fruits and removing the pulp. Eating too many seeds in one sitting is also not advisable, especially for young children, as it may result in Ginkgotoxin poisoning. Consuming as little as five kernels in some extreme cases have been shown to result in convulsions, not unlike epileptic seizures, although consumption of pyridoxine (a.k.a. vitamin B6) prevents this. Nutritionally however, these seeds are a good source of carbohydrates, protein, niacin, and have been attributed with a myriad of health benefits. Of course, these qualities are nothing new, at least to those who revere this tree anyway.


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