Not your average nut

From dinosaurs to the hustle and bustle of today, this tree has seen it all—and it bears a nut worth cracking.

Well hello, November. Summer has bid its official farewell and the cooler weather has made its appearance. Evidence of the looming winter is all around—from the eavestroughs lined with red and yellow leaves to the extra effort required to get out of bed on these impossibly dark mornings. Autumn is the perfect time of year to reintroduce long coats, warm lattes and, in Japan, curious little tree nuts called ginnan.

As you tighten your scarf and stroll through public parks and down avenues of Tokyo, Seoul, New York or Chicago, chances are good that you’ll find yourself under a canopy of ginkgo (“silver apricot”) trees. They’re hard to miss with their oversized, fan-shaped leaves and white-shelled nuts resembling pistachios or miniature apricots that litter the ground below in autumn. They may also be recognizable by their, err, unique smell— but we’ll come back to that.

Ginkgo trees are fascinating. Considered living fossils, they’ve stood the test of time—literally—having been around for approximately 200 million years. In fact, ginkgo trees are among the Hiroshima hibaku trees—meaning “capable of surviving a nuclear bomb.” As the term suggests, a handful of ginkgoes were among the trees that managed to fully recover and, indeed, thrive in the aftermath of the Hiroshima bombing. In their native China, ginkgo trees are revered as symbols of hope and peace, widely planted on temple grounds and commonly referenced in Chinese art and literature.

So, back to those nuts. While they aren’t typically consumed in North America or Europe, ginnan are fairly common as an autumnal snack in Japan—with some advocates going so far as to say that they “taste like fall.” Typically roasted and salted or used as an ingredient in chawanmushi, a savoury custard, ginnan are said to offer moderate medicinal benefits—that is, if you can get over the smell. From mouldy cheese to rotting garbage, name the awful stench and ginnan have likely been compared to it. But in parts of Japan, China and Korea, you’ll find these not-so-subtle nuts sold as a snack after they’ve been washed, strained, cracked open and toasted like stovetop popcorn.

If you’re planning a visit to Japan and are interested in trying ginnan despite their off-putting scent, take caution that the nuts are to be consumed in extremely limited quantities. Because of the risk of ginkgo seed poisoning, adults are advised to eat ten or fewer per day ( five or fewer for children) in order to avoid stomach ache, nausea, vomiting and more serious side effects. When eaten in limited amounts, ginnan offer vitamins and minerals ranging from B-complex vitamins to manganese, potassium, calcium, iron and zinc. In traditional Chinese medicine, they are said to improve memory loss and altitude sickness as well as ease respiratory problems and premenstrual symptoms. In North America, ginkgo extract (from the leaves of the tree) is approved as a safe supplement, so talk to your doctor, pharmacist or nutritionist if you’re interested in reaping the benefits of the world’s oldest tree.