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A Philly tradition fades: Asian immigrants and ginkgo picking

As the older folks pass on, the younger generation has no interest in gathering the stinky fruits that fall to the ground.

An unidentified Asian man collects gingko along the grassy area of Roosevelt Boulevard near Adams Avenue on Thursday, October 30, 2014. ( ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER )
An unidentified Asian man collects gingko along the grassy area of Roosevelt Boulevard near Adams Avenue on Thursday, October 30, 2014. ( ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER )Read moreDN

ON HER WAY to get coffee the other day, Margaret Chin passed a female ginkgo tree outside Holy Redeemer Chinese Catholic Church at 9th and Vine streets and picked up two fallen ginkgo fruits from the parking lot.

She went home to Chinatown, cleaned off the fleshy pulps and let the nuts dry. Then she cracked the shells and added the meaty kernels to a collection in her freezer to be cooked in soup.

This is not something that Chin does regularly. But the retired principal of Southwark Elementary School in South Philly remembers her late mother doing it at this time of year along South Broad Street in the 1970s after the family arrived from Hong Kong.

Her mother died 10 years ago, and the tradition of Asian immigrants scouring the city each autumn for freshly fallen ginkgo fruits - which some Asian cultures use in foods for purported health benefits - seems largely to have passed with her generation.

As an example, Chin's son and daughter, both in their 30s, are familiar with ginkgo nuts as an ingredient in soups - but will they carry on the tradition?

"Absolutely no," Chin said. "I guess it has to do with their work schedule. I'm sure if they need it, they can always buy it in the market."

These days, the nuts are sold in Asian supermarkets in Chinatown and Northeast Philadelphia, and an elderly Chinese woman sells them on the street at 10th and Race streets in Chinatown.

Here and there in the city, older Asian immigrants still can be found gathering the fallen fruits.

A few days ago, a 68-year-old Chinese man sat on a small, wooden bench in the grassy median of Roosevelt Boulevard near Allengrove Street in Northeast Philadelphia.

As vehicles whizzed by, he quietly picked up the yellowish-orange fruits from the grass with white latex gloves and squished off the stinky, fleshy part to get to the meaty kernel. He put the kernels in a big bowl, then dumped them into a bucket he had near his bike.

The retired Northeast Philly resident, who hails from Guangdong province in southern China, sat near a ginkgo tree amid his piles of the fleshy pulps. Speaking in Chinese, he said he brings the nuts home for his wife to cook in soups and other foods because he likes to eat them. He didn't want to give his name.

Helen Wen, a Northeast Philadelphia resident who came here from China in 1997, says her mother and mother-in-law have often picked the fallen ginkgo fruits from the ground. She believes in the health benefits of the nuts inside and eats them in congee, or rice porridge. Ginkgo nuts are good for one's memory, kidneys and urinary tract, she said.

Wen said her mother, now in her 70s, used to pick up the fallen fruits in and around Chinatown. Last year and again this year, her mother went with a friend to scour for the fruit in Northeast Philadelphia.

Her mother-in-law also used to harvest the fruit in Philadelphia, but doesn't do it anymore because of deteriorating health, Wen said.

But her two sons, ages 15 and 18, have no interest in gathering the fallen fruit or eating the nuts. "Even if you put it in congee soup, he picks it out," Wen said, speaking about each of her sons.

Even Wen herself doesn't pick up the fruits. She doesn't have the time. Plus, she said, they stink.

It's that time again

Only the female ginkgo tree bears the stinky yellow fruit, which tends to fall in October and November and is a bane to pedestrians. The city Streets Department doesn't clean sidewalks, the responsibility of homeowners.

Technically, the ginkgo berry is a "fleshy cone," but it's OK to call it a fruit, said Peter Del Tredici, an expert on ginkgo trees who recently retired as a senior research scientist at the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University.

The fruits are mildly toxic, he said, and some people who handle them with bare hands can get a rash. To clean them, they should be put into a bucket of water, which separates the nut from the stinky flesh. The meat inside the wooden nut is what people eat, he said.

Del Tredici said ginkgo nuts are popular in China, Japan and Korea, where they are cultivated on a large scale as a food product. He has seen immigrants in Boston and New York pick up the fallen fruits.

"You're not supposed to eat too many of them," he said. "They're a little bit toxic. Children can be poisoned by eating too many of them. . . . That's why it's used as a condiment, not as something by itself."

Westerners may be more familiar with ginkgo biloba as a supplement sold in health-food stores or pharmacies. The supplement, made from the leaves of the ginkgo tree, has been touted to improve memory and thinking. (Ginkgo biloba is the scientific name of the tree.)

Bartram's Garden in Southwest Philadelphia has what is believed to be the oldest living male ginkgo tree in North America, said the garden's curator, Joel Fry. Three male saplings were shipped to the U.S. from London in 1785 by William Hamilton to his home, the Woodlands mansion and garden, in West Philadelphia.

It is believed that Hamilton then gave a sapling to William Bartram in a trade or as a gift, Fry said. Bartram then planted the tree in the family's garden.

Fry said he used to see older Asian women picking up the fallen ginkgo fruits along the garden's entry drive, where the female trees are primarily located. "They would have on rubber gloves, maybe aprons, and kerchiefs around their faces," he said. "They were very efficient." They picked up the fruits from the ground and "would squish off the outer husk," he said, and put the inner nuts in bags.

The last time he saw the women pick them up was 10 years ago.

Cecilia Moy Yep, 85, founder and executive director emeritus of the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corp., used to help older Chinese women pick up the ginkgo fruits that fell from the tree at Holy Redeemer.

Decades ago, she helped pick up some of the fallen fruits for the older women before people stepped on them. "If cracked, they were no good," she said.

"The ones who I knew who did it passed away," she said of the church women who picked up the ginkgo fruits.

Yan Chen, 42, came to Philadelphia from Guangdong province in 1991. Last year, she and a friend went to pick up some ginkgo nuts that had fallen off trees near 8th and Race streets in front of the Temple University School of Podiatric Medicine.

"We saw so many older generations do that, we decided to bring it home and cook it," said Chen, who now lives in Cherry Hill.

Although she enjoys adding ginkgo nuts to congee and soups and believes in their health benefits, she doesn't plan to pick them up from the ground again. "It's too much work," she said. It takes a long time to clean, peel and wash the nuts, she said.

Now, she'll buy the nuts in Chinatown.

Her three children, ages 14 to 18, like Wen's sons, don't like eating ginkgo nuts. "They taste it, they don't like it," she said. "They picked it out [of their food]. They don't want to eat it."

Beyond Asian

But if interest in ginkgo fruit has waned among Asian Americans, it has risen elsewhere.

Bri Barton, garden manager at the Historic Fair Hill Burial Ground, on Cambria Street near 9th in Fairhill, said the nuts are not only attractive to Asians.

In fact, on Oct. 18, the 300-year-old Quaker burial ground held a gleaning day to harvest ginkgos from two big female trees as part of its Orchard Harvest Day. Barton enjoys picking, roasting and eating the nuts.

Queen Village resident Jerry Silberman, 63, has gathered the ginkgo fruit off the ground for several years around Spruce and Pine streets between 15th and 22nd in Center City, and in Fitler Square. But not this year, due to time constraints.

He likes to cook the nuts in soups and roast them as a snack.

"I got into this because I'm always interested in free food," he said. "I've always been interested in foraging. One of the few trees that produces edible food in the city is ginkgo."