Monday, September 19, 2011

A Ginkgo Grows in Weimar

The Goethe Ginkgo
Photo by Robert Matthees

I once spent a summer in the East German town of Weimar. Well, it was only one month, but the weeks there were so special, they have grown into a whole summer in my mind. I was fifteen, my mother was attending a German teacher’s course, and my sister and I explored the streets of this historic town, steeped in art, music, and poetry.

Nearly every day we’d walk past one of Weimar’s most famous landmarks, located just a few blocks from our hotel: the Goethe Ginkgo Tree. Planted in 1820 by the German writer whose name it bears, the tree has grown to majestic proportions over the past two hundred years. It towered above the nearby buildings, its thick branches spreading wide to shade the street and the yard outside the Duchess Anna-Amalia Library.

I’d never seen a gingko before, and its oddly shaped leaves, twirling in the breeze on flat stems, always seemed to beckon to me.

During that month in Weimar, I also learned that Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) was not only one of Germany’s greatest poets and thinkers but also a respected scientist. He wrote a book on his observations of color phenomena and another on the metamorphosis of plants, in which he proposed the theory that the archetypal form of a plant can be seen in the shape of its leaves.

Photo by H. Zell
The ginkgo tree, with its uniquely shaped foliage, captured Goethe’s imagination. Only recently introduced into Europe from the Far East, the ginkgo began to feature prominently in 18th-century garden design and appeared in many parks throughout Germany. The tree fascinated Goethe so much that he adopted the practice of giving dried ginkgo leaves to his friends.

His most famous association with the tree is in the love poem, “Ginkgo Biloba,” which he wrote for Marianne von Willemer, an Austrian actress and one of Goethe’s many female “muses.” Okay, he was in love with her, although she was more than 30 years his junior and married to another man at the time.

In 1815, Goethe read the finished poem to Marianne and some friends. A week later, when he met Marianne in the garden of Heidelberg Castle, he plucked two leaves from a ginkgo tree and later pasted them onto the page containing the verses. The poem was published in 1819 in Goethe’s West-Eastern Divan, a collection inspired by Persian literature.

Although the Heidelberg ginkgo that yielded these famous leaves no longer stands, the poem is on display at the Goethe Museum in Düsseldorf.

It is not surprising that Goethe found the ginkgo so inspiring, for these trees are quite remarkable. They are highly tolerant to environmental pollution, for which reason the town where I live decided to plant them as shade trees along our streets, and ginkgos were the first trees to thrive in Hiroshima after a nuclear bomb flattened the Japanese city. Fossils discovered in China show that ginkgos were around 200 million years ago, and the species has changed very little during that time.

With such a long lineage, it makes perfect sense that this ancient tree has medicinal properties that address the afflictions of aging. Ginkgo boosts the circulation, and with better blood flow to the brain, it improves mood, mental alertness, and memory (a kind of herbal fountain of youth). Studies have shown that the leaf extract can improve the symptoms of dementia.

Photo by Uryah
Goethe lived for only twelve years after the planting of Weimar’s most famous ginkgo tree so he never saw it grow to the great height and breadth that it has today. But he would still have been able to watch its transformation through the seasons, from new leaves unfurling in the spring, to deep green in the summer, to golden in the fall. And by immortalizing the ginkgo in his poem to Marianne, Goethe ensured that the tree would become the symbol of his home town for centuries to come.


  1. I still have the silver ginkgo pin I got that summer in Weimar. I will never forget those days of exploring the town, sitting in on the opera rehearsals of Mozart's The Magic Flute, and especially the great & majestic Ginkgo Tree we passed by everyday. A wonderful symbol of health, longevity and serenity. Thanks for the memories Heidi

  2. It was fun taking that trip down memory lane. But I'd forgotten about those Mozart rehearsals. How could I? Thanks for the reminder.

  3. I quoted Geothe in a recent blog post, with the intention of looking more into his life--so I took particular interest in what you've posted. Thanks! And the info on the ginkgo tree is an added bonus :-)

  4. Glad you enjoyed the post, Kenda. Thanks for stopping by. Goethe did not lead a conventional life. Lots of interesting stuff there. I will check out your post on him.