Tag Archives: ginkgo

Thursday is Resource Day

They say that you learn as much from experiments that failed as experiments that succeeded. I don’t know who “they” are, or if they’re related to every emergency medical tech’s nemesis, “Some Guy.” Like Some Guy, “They” tell you to do, say, or act in a way that immediately threatens life, limb, or sanity. The difference is that Some Guy is more active. Some Guy tells you to pee on an electric fence, and when you do it, he disappears, leaving you to explain the situation to family, spouses, or law enforcement officials. They simply stand back, whispering ideas, and let you take the hit yourself. They tell the absolute truth, and They have no reason to dissemble or fabricate anything. The problem, of course, is that you only learn this when you’re trying to explain to your wife exactly WHY the cat’s head is shaved on only one side.

Ginkgo seeds
The power of They particularly presents itself with any of the culinary arts. You’ll hear a murmur of “They say that canning tomatoes is easy,” or “They have all sorts of ideas about what to do with Buddha’s Hand citrons.” What THEY never tell you is the details, so you have the learning experience, and they never will. They always hide in the background while you do something “easy”, like extracting honey from honeycomb, and vanish when you look over your shoulder, covered in honey and waving an electric uncapping knife over your head like Toshirô Mifune, and yell “So what do I do NOW?” And that’s how They got me to try frying ginkgo nuts.

It was inevitable that They were going to get me once again, and I heard the bullet before it got me. A few months back, a confluence of factors led to further study of ginkgo trees, which led to contemplations of the proper way to roast and eat ginkgo nuts. “People have been doing it for thousands of years,” I thought. “Nobody would be doing it if it weren’t worth the effort, right?”, They whispered. I’m sure They were just as persuasive when convincing Napoleon that invading Moscow in the winter was a good idea, and it might have been so if They hadn’t left out just a few teeny tiny details.

Procuring fresh ginkgo nuts itself wasn’t a problem. Being this close to Chinese New Year, many local grocery stores have at least a few mesh bags of ginkgo or “white nuts” on hand, and many of the Asian grocery stores in the vicinity sell ginkgo nuts in bulk. I knew that the nutmeats are toxic unless cooked, and that some people have issues with contact dermatitis from working with or eating them. Okay, that’s a start. I came across a lot of fascinating recipes for using the nutmeats in stirfry and in soups, but not much on their preparation. Most started with “get a skillet, put one tablespoon of oil in the bottom, heat until the oil starts to smoke, and add nuts.” Yeah, They left out a few details that made the experience a lot more interesting.

Ginkgo seeds

The first thing to consider is that the shell of a ginkgo nut isn’t particularly tough. It’s not as thick as, say, that of a pistachio. However, it makes up in ability to retain pressure what it lacks in armor, which means that a critical failure leads to a small steam explosion. Picture a popcorn seed popping, only with sharp shells going in one direction and a green lump of what looks like slug snot flying in another. Do that in an open skillet without a lid or cover, and your kitchen rapidly resembles the scene of a Drazi loogie-chucking competition. Oh, and popcorn merely burns a bit when a freshly popped kernel flies out and lands on your hand. Ginkgo nutmeats fly out and stick.


Since They didn’t warn about detonating nut hulls, it stands to reason that They wouldn’t say anything about the type of oil necessary. That’s because They didn’t say a damn thing about how hot those ginkgo shells would get when resting on the bottom of the skillet. To get enough heat to cook the nutmeats sufficiently, the shell tends to scorch. If the shell is scorching, then it stands to reason that the oil will smoke. Well, it might appear to do so, but never underestimate the ingenuity of fools and children. In a classic example of “failing to master the basics before moving to experimentation,” I thought “I really like chili oil, and I can only imagine that it would improve the flavor of the ginkgo nuts.” And with the same hubris, General George Armstrong Custer went to Little Big Horn.

Nearly 30 years ago, I found myself in Fort Jackson, South Carolina, going through Nuclear/Biological/Chemical warfare training as part of US Army Basic Training. At the end of the day, while wearing protective masks, all of us were marched into a chamber loaded with CS gas, told to take off our helmets and masks, and the drill sergeants waited to see our reactions. Not only did the indescribable pain of a lungful of CS gas teach us all the importance of getting on our masks in future encounters so we’d never have to deal with this again, but it still haunts my occasional nightmares. Even better, since I was the “nice guy” in the platoon, I knew that the drill sergeants were waiting for us to bolt for the door, where they’d ask a herd of semi-paralytic teenagers such vital questions as “What’s your name, Private?” and “What’s your First General Order?” before letting us through. Therefore, I stayed in for about twenty minutes, not realizing that two groups had entered and left past me, waiting my turn for interrogation and release.

I’m not saying that chili oil smoke compares to CS gas. Among other things, exposure to chili oil smoke still allows you such advanced skills as color vision and bowel control. However, I now know how grizzly bears feel.


Because They never whispered a word about the use or misuse of chili oil, They also got great mirth from the realization that a standard kitchen stove fume hood wasn’t going to be enough. The smoke detectors in the house went off. The cats ran to hide in the bathroom. The Czarina didn’t say anything, other than to open up the windows and turn on the industrial-grade venting fan in the garage. Asking her “Well, aside from that, Mrs. Kennedy, what do you think of Dallas?” didn’t do a whole lot, either, and I now know exactly how long it takes for a bruised spleen to stop aching and pulsing.


Finally, the house cleared, and since the outside air was running just about freezing, the command decision was made that we’d vented as much smoke as possible. I swore that if I ever used chili oil again, I was to do it outside. The current batch was finished anyway, so I poured it into a bowl, waited for the nuts to cool, and started to dig in. Before that, though, it was time to turn off the fan, close the windows, and reset the heater, because while it wasn’t going to get brutally cold, the great outdoors weren’t going to get any warmer.

The next morning, I woke up to find one of the cats in one of the windows opened for venting. Specifically, Cadigan was letting me know her supreme displeasure in discovering the one window I’d missed. Did she make her displeasure known before dawn? Oh, of course not. Her amusement just increased when I looked at her and told her “Okay, cat. You’re getting a job or you can move out.”


Not only are They really good at avoiding complete information, but They’re also good at passing on what seems to be good advice. Since I’d received several warnings that ginkgo nuts needed to be cooked because the raw nuts are toxic, I worried about the nuts that hadn’t popped. “What if they’re only medium rare, and I turn purple and explode?” Reasonable, but They gave a suggestion: “why not put the unpopped nuts into the microwave? A minute or so should settle the matter, right?” In retrospect, this was a classic example of the Texas demonstration of an individual’s fitness for public office: “Hold my beer and watch this.” Again, remember what I said about fools and children.

When I was in high school, one of my favorite meals when left to my own devices was an egg and cheese sandwich. Pulling out a skillet and frying up the eggs was too much effort, and I discovered very rapidly that putting two or three eggs in a bowl, covering it with Tillamook cheddar, and putting the mess into the microwave was a lot more fun. I knew that leaving the bowl uncovered was an impending disaster, so I covered the lot with a good stout plate, set the microwave for about 4 minutes, and let it rip. I didn’t have to listen for the oven’s beeper: instead, I listened carefully for the aftermath of the outside of the yolks cooking faster than the inside. After a time, enough steam pressure built up inside that the yolks exploded, and THAT was my Pavlovian cue. I also knew enough to let things cool down, because I didn’t want red-hot egg yolk spattering me when the yolk ruptured while being moved.

These days, I look back on that recipe and remember Dallas musician Jeff Liles‘s crack in his first Cottonmouth, TX spoken-word album about a sandwich “grabbing my heart like a fist.” Even though I haven’t had one in nearly three decades, those sandwiches taught me very valuable lessons about microwave oven science. Namely, when something starts going off in the oven with very sharp reports, don’t assume “Oh, my wife is storing 5.56 mm ammo in the microwave again.” You cut the power. Thankfully, I had a top, too, but the ginkgo nuts built up a bit more pressure before detonating. The successive percussions didn’t take out the cover, but it did look like Yog-Sothoth took one long sneeze in the bowl. The nuts were still edible, but they were missing something. I think what was missing were the seedling embryos’ souls.


Will this escapade stop me? Oh, hells no. Another batch later, and practice makes perfect. Just so long as They don’t convince me that the best thing to wash down ginkgo nuts is a durian smoothie, the Czarina won’t kill me in my sleep this week.

The News:
From a botanical and mycological standpoint, the understanding of organism migration, with and without human help, keeps offering up more surprises. For instance, discovering that the death’s cap mushroom, Amanita phalloides, is spreading across the planet, isn’t news. I can see that every time the fruiting bodies emerge from the thatch in my front lawn and threaten to block out the sun. (Go ahead and laugh. After three steady days of rain, you’d think I was growing Prototaxites in the front yard. It’s also endlessly engaging to note that many plants, including orchids, depend upon a symbiosis between the plant and a similarly unique fungus, which fuse the plant’s root system to the fungus’s mycellia network. In this case, the plant supplies carbohydrates while the fungus provides nitrogen from various sources. Those “various sources” can include decaying organic matter (hence the fungus in my lawn feeding on grass thatch, dead leaves, and the occasional squirrel dropping), but in the case of the eastern white pine tree, its symbiote gets its nitrogen by capturing and absorbing springtails and other insects that it catches and digests.

The real surprise, though, is coming. As a recent article in Slate by Cat Adams notes, A. phalloides is now found on every continent but Antarctica, mostly due to the transport of spore- or mycella-contaminated soils to new locales. The kicker? Its expansion across the planet involves it not being so fussy about its oak symbiote as other fungi, and it moving to support different oaks as well. Considering that the one absolute component of North Texas flora is its wide range of oaks, the surprise is that A. phalloides hasn’t taken over the entire state. Which it probably has.

Likewise, most people today don’t consider the noble bottle gourd other than for its shapeliness, a few look at its historical value, and very few consider its origins. Those who do, though, have a great story to tell. Based on DNA analysis between known North American bottle gourds and those of Asia and Africa, it appears that the bottle gourd came across the Atlantic on its own, instead of being transported by humans. Obviously, the “how” is an interesting question, but it’s not impossible: it’s very easy to see bottle gourds and other squash species being transported via flotsam rafts in floods, as it seems to work very well for other species. The “when”…well, that’s a question where I suspect that the answer will be even more entertaining than anyone realized.

The Reading:
Now that the snow and ice are gone and we can be reasonably sure that the Dallas area won’t be hit with crippling temperatures for the rest of the year, it’s time to start plotting and scheming plans for miniature gardens and arrangements. This means lots of time in the work area, building new frames and setting up new enclosures, so it’s time for inspiration. When contemplating taking a series of enclosures to a new level, it was time to dig out my copy of High Aztech by the exemplary Latino science fiction writer Ernest Hogan. Part of this is because I’ve been proud to call Ernest a dear friend for 25 years now, and part is because his view of the resurgent Tenochtitlan of 2045 offers a lot of room for experimentation. As he’s always pointing out, there’s nothing wrong with looking at the past if you’re using it to build the future, and I already have some serious ideas involving Mexican butterworts and futuro-Aztec backdrops.

Likewise, most reading material should have a soundtrack, so it’s time for suggestions in that regard. This week, check out the new album Down Time by DJ earWIG. It’s not necessarily greenhouse music (as related many times, my preferred greenhouse working music is a bit more lively), but it’s excellent music for reading, writing, studying, and generally expanding the cerebrum beyond all normal limits.

The Store:

I’m of two minds about beekeeping these days. While I certainly support anyone raising and caring for honeybees these days, I’m nostalgic for my beekeeping days back when I was in high school, but not so much as to get my own hive. That said, I know that at least one hive is in the vicinity of the Triffid Ranch, considering the number of honeybees who come out to drink water from the Sarracenia pools, slurp up nectar from the fresh blooms in spring, and collect by the dozens in the traps in fall. This is the time of year where I start looking fondly at the Dadant beekeeping equipment catalog, not because I want to spread myself further with my own hive, but because I missed the smell of fresh wax and propolis more than I knew. One bee suit…one suit wouldn’t be bad, would it?

The Event:

Any excuse to head out to Fort Worth is a good one. Whether it’s causing trouble at the Fort Worth Museum of Science & History or wandering about in the Fort Worth Botanic Garden, I look forward to reasons to make the road trip. February 20, we have a humdinger, as author Amy Stewart presents a chat on her new book The Drunken Botanist at the Botanic Research Institute of Texas. Considering how much I enjoyed her book Wicked Plants, I may skip out of work early to make sure I can make it.

Renaissance Circles: Ginkgoes and Fruit-Eating Crocs


A long while back, I accepted the idea that the classic “Renaissance Man” archetype is impossible. It wasn’t really possible during the period when the term was coined, but Thomas Jefferson and Georges Cuvier and Richard Owen could fake it. Even through the Eighteenth Century, an individual with a reasonable accumulation of knowledge on most subjects? Sure, if you were limited to concentrating on works in your native tongue and a smattering of references in three or four other languages. Today, there’s simply no way to be that much of a generalist. Any of the pure or applied sciences alone sees so much advancement in a year that standard print books on physics or palaeontology are hopelessly outdated by the time they see print six months after the author typed “-30-“, and now further education depends more on unlearning inaccurate or obsolete information picked up during earlier bouts of academia.

This isn’t to say that learning is worthless, or that there’s no point in trying to keep up. Instead, what I’m seeing, thanks to the wonders of the Intertubes, is the evolution of what I like to call “Renaissance circles”. These are groups of people specializing in widely diverse fields, who themselves have friends with enough knowledge in those fields that they can make connections and build relationships impossible within those specialties. Thirty years ago, the cross-pollination between, say, astronomers and palaeontologists that ultimately allowed the the acceptance of an extraterrestrial impact as the cause of the famed Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction was an anomaly. These days, that sort of mass mind isn’t just common, but in fact inevitable.

Dr. Peter Crane

Case in point. A few months back, I was lucky enough to catch a lecture tied to the book Ginkgo: The Tree that Time Forgot by Peter Crane, with Dr. Crane discussing his longtime love with Ginkgo biloba and its extinct cousins. While the ginkgos used to range every continent during the days of Pangaea, they gradually died back through the Mesozoic Era and the earlier parts of the Cenozoic, with the last holdouts in the northwest of North America and the eastern portion of Asia until about 8 million years ago. Right about then, ginkgoes disappear from the fossil record, and they were understandably thought to be extinct by researchers in the West until the first samples of wood and leaf arrived in Europe from China. One species, Ginkgo biloba, survived that final cull, and survived through China and Japan for thousands of years thanks to human intervention. Today, ginkgoes are found on every continent but Antarctica, but like the resurgence of the Wollemi pine, it’s due to people enjoying the beauty of the tree and encouraging its growth. Between the symmetry of the fan-like leaves in spring and summer, and the stunning canary yellow foliage in autumn, it’s hard not to fall in love with ginkgoes except for one little issue.

Ginkgo leaves

The issue, sad to say, is the ginkgo’s fruit. Ginkgo produce separate male and female trees, and the vast majority of ginkgo grown in urban areas are male. (The photos above are of ginkgoes on the grounds of the Fort Worth Botanic Garden, and they’re all male.) That’s because the females produce clusters of squishy fruits a little larger than a cherry, with apricot-colored flesh surrounding a stout seed with a strong shell, roughly the size of a pistachio. With the exception of the nut itself, very popular when roasted, that’s the last analogy to anything edible that you’ll hear about ginkgo fruit. My ex referred to the stench of ripe ginkgo fruit as “cat shit on a stick”, and I experienced this firsthand when I lived in Portland, Oregon in the late 1990s. A Lutheran church in downtown, about a block from my mail drop, had planted male and female ginkgoes between the church itself and the city sidewalks with no concern for the aftermath, and walking those sidewalks in October was a nightmare. The ripe fruit splattered onto the sidewalks when ripe, rapidly turning into an orange mush in the gutters with a stench that would have burned out the nose hairs of a dead nun. Worse, the strength and shape of the nuts meant that they didn’t break easily underfoot, and a badly placed heel meant that you went sliding into that gutter. The only good news was that ginkgo stench wore off after about an hour, and didn’t stain clothing, so it wasn’t quite as bad as rolling around in a litter box, but only just.

Now here’s where it gets interesting. Firstly, nothing disturbed that fruit while it was relatively fresh. I didn’t test this personally, but unlike durian, nobody is ever going to sell ginkgo smoothies as the latest fad taste sensation, unless coprophilia suddenly becomes VERY popular. The nuts would eventually be snagged by local crows, but I never saw bird nor mammal rushing to grab them up if given a choice between them and acorns. Likewise, considering that the conditions in the Pacific Northwest were extremely conducive to growing ginkgo in the wild, you’d think that the forests outside of Portland and Seattle would be overtaken with ginkgo trees, but they really only showed up in areas where they’d obviously been planted by humans. Since humans weren’t around when ginkgo last lived in the Portland area, I wondered what factors caused their seed dispersal and germination.


Here’s where it gets even more interesting. Ginkgo nuts will germinate on their own, but apparently the natural germination rate within the nut shells is very low. Almost every bonsai book I’ve encountered that discusses ginkgo as a good bonsai tree recommends gently cracking the shell with pliers and removing the embryo inside, instead of merely planting the nut and waiting for it to germinate on its own. This suggested that the nut needed some kind of chemical or mechanical treatment to weaken the shell. But what? Whatever it was, it was in short supply in Portland, otherwise the city would have been overrun with ginkgo a century ago.

And now it gets bizarre. Late last week, Dr. Thomas Holtz, a man whom I want to be like when I finally grow up, shared a very fascinating article on frugivorous habits of modern crocodylians. While modern crocodiles, alligators, and caimans give every indication of being obligate carnivores, they apparently have a fruit-eating streak that runs across the entire group. (I haven’t found anything on gharials eating fruit, but that may just because nobody has chronicled it yet.) The article went even further, suspecting that crocodylians might be involved with seed dispersal in the wild by spreading them in their feces. Problem is, alligators and crocodiles tend to be rather secretive about their constitutional habits, so everything is conjecture at this time.

DING! The light went off in my head: “what if the previous success of ginkgoes was due to their nuts being spread by dinosaurs, crocodylians, and other archosaurs in their dung?” The idea of large animals carrying, processing, and dispersing seeds of large trees isn’t anything new: just talk to anyone familiar with the Osage orange (Maclura pomifera) and its probable spread across North America in the guts of Columbian mammoths, mastodons, and ground sloths during the Pleistocene. I brought this up with Dr. Holtz, and he informed me that, at least as far back as his grad student days, alligators were notorious for scarfing up dropped ginkgo fruit.

Now, here’s where surmisal turns into testable hypothesis. The surmisal is that ginkgo fruit may have developed its particular rank odor to attract now-extinct crocodyloforms and other archosaurs and descendants, including dinosaurs and large birds, and encourage them to swallow the seeds. Said seeds were big enough to act as gizzard stones in the species with gizzards, with the seeds passing through the gut after having most of the shell coat worn away by mechanical action in the gizzard. Much like many seeds, from eucalypts to Capsicum peppers, those seeds would be deposited in new locales with a healthy dollop of fertilizer around them, giving them a decided advantage in germination and growth over other species that didn’t utilize the powers of crocodile crap. Considering the number of crocodylian species that thrived through most of North America until the end of the Miocene, when Earth started its current cooling cycle, it’s possible that one or more species surviving until about 8 million years ago was a major vector for ginkgo nuts, and the ginkgo died out in North America and most of Asia shortly after. (And now I want to go digging for more information on the distribution during the Pliocene and Pleistocene on the range of the Chinese alligator [Alligator sinensis].) Now all that’s left is finding evidence to back up this surmisal.

The potential evidence comes in three forms. The toughest would be to examine gizzard stone collections still preserved within the ribcages of fossil crocodylians: this is tough partly because so few were preserved and because ginkgo nuts may or may not preserve under those conditions. The second would be to look for ginkgo nuts within crocodylian coprolites, and that requires finding incontrovertible crocodile coprolites from the right place and the right age. Finally, there’s real-time experimentation: offering ripe ginkgo fruit to alligators, confirming that they ate the fruit of their own volition, and then following them around with a baggie for a few days until I got the seeds back. And considering that I have a good friend who (a) forgets more about crocodylians every night when he goes to sleep than I’ll ever learn, (b) has access to captive alligators and crocodiles, and (c) is up for all sorts of odd experiments, I now have about 11 months to plan this out and get a good supply of ripe ginkgo fruit. Don’t wait up.

Have a Great Weekend

Lullaby and good night, close your big bloodshot eyes…

For fellow residents of the United States, this week leads up to Thanksgiving and the real beginning of our main holiday season. (Although, to be fair, the real holiday season doesn’t start until Yak Shaving Day.) For the antipodes, everyone is looking forward to spring. For my Canadian brethren, the next week marks a day of general relaxation, where they celebrate their crafting skills by carving lawn furniture out of blocks of frozen nitrogen on the front porch. Out here at the Triffid Ranch, though, this week is extremely important, because this is the start of winter dormancy for all of the temperate carnivorous plants out here.

If in case emphasizing the importance of giving your Venus flytrap a good long winter nap wasn’t clear before, it’s time to let it rest. Let it die back. If it gets frostburned, don’t panic. Just so long as it doesn’t dry out over the winter, it should be fine, and don’t try to force it to remain active by putting it under artificial light. The same goes for your Sarracenia, your temperate sundews, and especially any temperate butterworts. Let them sleep, and they’ll reward you in March and April with blooms and new growth.

Not that this marks the end of activities at the Triffid Ranch for the rest of the year. Anything but. In fact, I’m currently trying to check with friends in the Portland, Oregon area about getting about two dozen of this season’s ginkgo nuts. I have a project that needs ginkgos to work, and they absolutely HAVE to be Portland ginkgos. You’ll understand when it’s done.