The Ginkgo Biloba Trees in Lucca – Tuscany

by Samuele Sodini

If you are approaching Lucca as a visitor and not just as a lazy tourist, pay a visit to our small Botanical Garden.

The friendly eye and ear of a sympathetic foreigner can bring alive the culture that permeates the garden, because it is not just a matter of seeing various plants, but of reading the chronicle of what has been going on here in the past centuries.

During my recent visit to the garden, I came to know the beautiful Ginkgo Biloba trees, and I immediately fell in love with them. The name sounded exotic and totally unfamiliar to me, since China and Japan are their place of origin.

The Ginkgo Biloba is a living fossil, unchanged since the time of dinosaurs, with a life span reaching a thousand years and the peculiarity – for the vegetal world – that male and female are separate trees.

Their very elegant fan-shaped bilobate leaves have been depicted for centuries on marvellous Chinese porcelains and silks. The male tree has been living in the Botanical Garden since 1820 when the garden was created in support of the Faculty of Botany under the government of Maria Luisa di Borbone, Duchess of Lucca.

Before then, the apothecaries in Lucca got their raw materials from small private gardens. Long ago the Ginkgo Biloba male tree was struck into three parts by lightning and each part had the strength to grow up separately as a totally independent tree, but maintaining the common roots.

Aquestion may soon come to your lips: Where is the female tree? Don’t look around for “her”, because the female Ginkgo Biloba has been pushed outside the Walls for the sake of the garden’s visitors’ noses, because of the disgusting odour of rancid meat developed while playing the romantic episode of their lives, that we label as pollination.

The “poor girl”, who produces an abundance of ovules that look like yellow cherries, is compelled to excrete a sticky substance to attract the insects that have previously visited the “male tree” at the Botanical Garden and this results in a very unpleasant smell because of the presence of butyric acid. You can see the female Ginkgo Biloba just outside Porta Elisa.

This cosmopolitan tree has specimens practically all over the globe, and you can easily distinguish the Ginkgo Biloba in autumn when it turns into a beautiful yellow. The long, thin stems allow their leaves to gently flutter and rhapsodise in the autumn breeze before they fall.

While you consider how hard life is for the dear Ginkgo Bilobas, have a look at the red-eyed turtles, mockingly relaxing on the lotus leaves in the nearby pond. The bright red makeup that nature has painted around their eyes gives them the look of a clown.

They are of the common type usually won at fun fairs, but they refuse lettuce and order minced meat or shrimps for lunch. Once they get too big to be kept at home, they are often abandoned in the Botanical Garden pond as in an orphanage.

These squeamish newcomers disturb the Japanese carps – some of them have been living in the little pond for almost a hundred years – but add a touch of quizzical atmosphere to the stagnant environment.

The garden has a wide variety of azaleas and rhododendrons belonging to the camellia family that the Botanical Garden bought from China. All the camellias present in the many villas around Lucca originally come from the Botanical Garden.

Note that they are cultivated around the perimeter of the garden because they need to be watered only with the acidic water which comes from the mountain via Maria Luisa di Borbone’s aqueduct, whilst all the other plants take advantage of the normal tap water we all use in our houses.

I cannot avoid mentioning the Hortus Sanitaris where 700 medical plants are still cultivated, reminding us of the days before pharmaceutical companies, when we had to rely on these plants for our health. Another aspect of this microcosm is the past military utilisation of this area.

The big stone balls spread around to decorate the garden will catapult you, allow me the word, directly into the Middle Ages. In fact they are real cannon-balls, left over from undefined battles lost in the mists of the past. Before leaving the garden, climb the snail-shaped hill, a feature common to many Italianate gardens.

The hill hosts all the autochthonous plants and herbs of the region and allows a beautiful view of the whole garden. There is much more to see at the Botanical Garden, but I leave the rest to your already expert eye.

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