A Gingko tree -so what?
Today I visited the Flower Dome here in Singapore. Together with the Cloud Dome it’s a fantastic glass dome construction that houses probably tens of thousands of plants from all over the world. It’s absolutely gorgeous. What surprised me however was that they didn’t have a Gingko tree. I love Ginkgo. I know, I’m one among many, but still. Isn’t the fan-shaped leaf one of the most beautiful leaves in the world?
When I was a child I didn’t know what Ginkgo was. I had never seen one. I don’t remember how old I was when I saw my first Ginkgo tree or leaf. But I thought it must have been a very rare sight and something special here in Germany. Just recently I learned that I had been wrong. Ginkgo trees have been around for many years in my country. Our famous writer and poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe already wrote a poem about the Gingko tree:
Dieses Baums Blatt, der von Osten
Meinem Garten anvertraut,
Gibt geheimen Sinn zu kosten,
Wie's den Wissenden erbaut.
Ist es ein lebendig Wesen,
Das sich in sich selbst getrennt?
Sind es zwei, die sich erlesen,
Daß man sie als eines kennt?
Solche Fragen zu erwidern
Fand ich wohl den rechten Sinn:
Fühlst Du nicht an meinen Liedern,
Daß ich eins und doppelt bin?
Since there are one or two of my readers who are not fluent in the German language, let me offer you an English translation, not done by me though. I wouldn’t dare try to translate Goethe’s work.
The leaf of this Eastern tree
Which has been entrusted to my garden
Offers a feast of secret significance,
For the edification of the initiate.
Is it one living thing
That has become divided within itself?
Are these two who have chosen each other,
So that we know them as one?
I think I have found the right answer
To these questions;
Do my songs not make you feel
That I am both one and twain?1
Now, why are we so fascinated with the Ginkgo tree and its leaf? For some it is probably simply the shape of the leaf that is so unusual. But to others it is more than that. We have become intrigued by other cultures’ mysteries and spirituality.
In China, the country the Ginkgo originally comes from, the tree symbolizes hope and peace. The leaf has been portrayed in art and literature in plentifold. The Chinese brought the tree to Japan where it was treated with just as much respect. Relatively recent history has brought the Ginkgo tree once again to people’s memory, not only in Japan. When the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and devastation was brought to the region, it was the Ginkgo tree, actually several Ginkgo trees, that showed such resilience they survived the blast. Once again the tree is the symbol of peace and hope, but also endurance and longevity.
How, now, and when did the tree reach Europe? We owe this pleasure, if you will, to the German botanist and physician Engelbert Kämpfer (1651-1716) who encountered the tree during his travels in Japan between 1690 and 1692. He basically rediscovered the tree for western science because up to then the tree had been considered extinguished and only fossilized remnants existed. It was Kämpfer who brought some seeds to Holland and one of the first Ginkgo trees planted in the Botanical Garden of Utrecht can still be seen there. It took another 100 years before the tree found its way to the New World, specifically to William Hamilton’s garden in Philadelphia, USA. I guess what we can say is that since 1784 roughly the Ginkgo tree can be found all over the world.
Let’s go back to the leaf one more time and look at its shape. I mentioned the fan shape before, which is nice, but the gap in the middle of the leaf is striking too. This feature is actually the reason for the botanic name of the Ginkgo tree: Ginkgo Biloba. Bi as we know means double or two, loba means lobe (Lappen in German). The name Ginkgo seems to be a typo or mis-translation from the Chinese and later Japanese word Ginkgyo meaning silver apricot.
One last thing worth mentioning here is that the Ginkgo is a dioecious plant. Fantastic word, isn’t it? D-i-o-e-c-i-o-u-s. It means it can have either sex or reproductive organs, female or male. That is probably the reason why the Ginkgo is associated with the yin and yang, the duality that recognizes the female and the male aspects of all living entities. Isn’t that great?!
Let me leave you here with a photo of a gorgeous pendant my friend Tara Van Meer gave me. She is an artist who specializes in carving and etching glass. Her favourite motive is the Ginkgo leaf. Go figure ☺