Dr. Eduard Dorsch was one of the so-called “German 48ers” who left Bavaria due to the 1848 war ravaging his native country. He immigrated to the United States and eventually set up a new life in Monroe County, Michigan as a physician serving the needs of the local German population. The good doctor built a solid Italianate brick house near the public square, fulfilled his career, authored a scholarly work on bullet wounds during the Civil War and engaged in his artistic pursuits as a skilled botanical artist.
Dorsch was gifted a Ginkgo tree from the Chinese Ambassador to the U.S. in 1865 and planted it in a prominent location in his front yard. Both the doctor and his tree have since become an indelible part of local history. Today, some 140 plus years later, the doctor’s house serves as part of the Monroe County Library system and his tree still stands in the front yard. A well oxidized brass plaque, situated on a stone at the base of the Ginkgo tree, provides a birth certificate for the tree in question.
The other half of this immigrant story is the tree itself. While the Chinese ambassador brought it from the other side of the world, he was actually returning it to its original home. Ginkgos once grew in the lush forests of ancient North America and their branches were parted by passing dinosaurs over 250 million years ago. In the modern age, these trees were only known as fossils (see here a leaf from an Eocene shale deposit) and believed extinct. When wild trees were found alive and well in the Chinese hinterlands, their discovery was as significant as that of the Coelacanth. Not only did the modern representatives appear related to their ancient fossil counterparts, they appeared identical. In all that time they had not diversified or changed one iota. The tree had not risen from the dead – it never died to begin with.
Although it may have started out as a loner in the new world, the Dorsch Gingko is not the only example of its kind in the region. Ginkgos are now widely planted as ornamental trees. They are slow growing, sparsely branched and somewhat pyramidal in shape. One of the easy ways to identify this tree is by looking at their wedge shaped leaves. In the textbooks this living fossil is called simply Ginkgo biloba because many of the leaves are nearly divided into two lobes by a deep center groove. In honor of Dr. Dorsch’s artistic endeavors, I will provide you a drawing of a fairly typical, although undivided, gingko leaf. I think you’ll agree that these leaves possess a perfect form and a linear simplicity that defies imitation. This design has stood the test of time and reflects the simple strength of the species over time. Even when they fall to the ground, they are stunning (see here – looks like one of those art shots you see on the walls of corporate offices doesn’t it?).
It is distinctly possible that the Dorsch tree will outlast both the library building and even the city in which it sits. Gingkos can live over 2,500 years, making our stately old oaks look like preschoolers. Like any old timer, these ancient survivors do have their peculiar habits. The female trees produce the most god-awful smelling pus filled fruit imaginable. When these crabapple sized berries fall, they produce a gelatinous mass of foul goo that happily wedges into every cavity of your shoe sole. The Dorsch tree is a female, unfortunately, and it is far too old to have a sex change operation. As you can imagine, many ornamental trees are grafted with male branches. Apparently the term gingko means “silver apricot” in Japanese and they view it as a food item in that island nation. It is strangely appropriate that this tree has medicinal properties that include potential use for treating Alzheimer’s victims, so there might be something to this. I personally think that something is lost in translation, but will leave stinking fruit lie.
The other odd thing about Ginkgos is that they tend to drop all their leaves at once in the fall. This characteristic has fueled the annual Dorsch Ginkgo Festival contest in which folks try to pick the exact date when this occurs. Winners receive prizes and all the fruit they can eat. You’re too late to enter this year, but next year could be your chance to achieve long life and prosperity.