Seed or fruit

Can there possibly be a dispute?

At Ohaupo Elementary School one of my sons had to learn this verse from one of Dr. Seuss’ children’s books: “I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees. I speak for the trees for the trees have no tongues….”.  But I’d like to add (and it even rhymes) “But trees do have seeds” and with few exceptions like bananas and a few other domesticated species, the trees need them to produce new trees. And this brings me to this week’s BIOFORTHEBIOBUFF topic, for I collected something that some people call seeds and others fruit. The latter are typical of Angiosperms, i.e. the flowering plants. The fact that they appeared rather abruptly about 100 million years ago and are not known from before that time troubled the great Charles  Darwin to an extent that he called the evolution of the Angiosperms “an abominable mystery”.

On the campus of Andong National University in Korea, we have many Ginkgo biloba trees, but they are not Angiosperms, but Gymnosperms. I remember a thing or two about them from my high school bio-classes with Dr Ruppolt, e.g. that the species is dioecious and that therefore separate male and female trees exist, that the species is ancient and has survived in China unchanged for 200 million years and now has been introduced to many countries, because it is such a tough and long-lived tree. Its pollen grains are wind-dispersed and, unique among all of the different species of trees and all flowering plants, contain sperm cells with cilia. Although the ginkgo tree is related to needle trees, it does not have needles but possesses characteristically shaped, parallel-veined, bilobed leaves (hence the specific name “biloba”), which turn beautifully golden in autumn and drop to the ground.

What I was not taught was, that its cherry-sized, yellowish  -let me call it for the moment- “fruit”, has a reputation to smell like vomit or rancid butter. This was the reason why my wife chased me out into the garden with my big bag of ginkgo “fruit”, which I had collected at the university and proudly presented to her when I got home from work. Although the ginkgo seeds, known as ‘nuts’ are edible when freed from their soft and yellowish coat, it takes time to wash, dry and then boil or lightly roast them before they can be consumed. But does the ginkgo tree actually produce “fruits”?

The tree, as mentioned before, belongs to the Gymnosperms, i.e. needle trees like conifers, which are characterised by an absence of flowers and the presence of naked seeds. The berries that a few of the Gymnosperms such as ginkgo, yew and juniper produce, look like real fruits, but they are derived from the ovule’s outer layer around the seed inside the ovary and are not, as in the flowering plants (known as Angiosperms), the result of the plant’s entire ovary. The latter is what in the Angiosperms enlarges and then becomes a proper fruit. Technically speaking, therefore, ginkgo, yew and juniper do not produce fruits, but only coated seeds that lack the ovary’s protective surround. In case of the yew, its red and sweet seed coat is edible and delicious, but its seed is deadly poisonous and should never be swallowed; the juniper berry is used for meat dishes (and gin), and regarding the ginkgo nut, only the adequately prepared seed without its fleshy coat is used.

What I found strange is that I do not find the ginkgo “fruit” smelly at all, while everybody, even those in Japan and Korea who love to eat the nuts, say so. I may have what the sensory physiologist John Amoore called “specific anosmia”, which applies to people who have an otherwise normal sense of smell, but are unable to smell certain specific odours. The Chinese writing for ginkgo 銀杏 (also used in Japan) translates into “Silver Apricot” (and not into something like ‘vomit berry’ or ‘stinky nut’). Perhaps the one who invented this Chinese character also was a lucky person who had specific anosmia and was not bothered by the ginkgo nut’s smell.

© Dr V.B. Meyer-Rochow and, 2021.
Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to V.B Meyer-Rochow and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.