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The Urpflanze, or Goethe’s Archetypal Plant

What pleases me most at present is plant-life. Everything is forcing itself upon me, I no longer have to think about it, everything comes to meet me, and the whole gigantic kingdom becomes so simple that I can see at once the answer to the most difficult problems. If only I could communicate the insight and joy to someone, but it is not possible. And it is no dream or fancy: I am beginning to grow aware of the essential form with which, as it were, Nature always plays, and from which she produces her great variety. Had I the time in this brief span of life I am confident I could extend it to all the realms of Nature – the whole realm. [from a letter to Charlotte von Stein, 1786]

Shortly before Johann Wolfgang von Goethe published The Metamorphosis of Plants in 1790, he engaged with a series of letters with Charlotte von Stein  in which he describes the Archetypal Plant, or the Urpflanze. He believed that there must be such an entity. Otherwise, he believed, how could he recognize this or that form was a plant if it were not built on a single basic model? His search for the plant took him many places–he believed that such a plant would exist on a rocky hillside in the Mediterranean. But then he realized that the archetypal plant was really Leaf, and the generative forces of a plant were really just fluctuations of the base Leaf form.

While botanists before him proposed vaguely similar theories on plant development, none had so embraced metamorphosis in the plant world as Goethe. He thought these processes to flow through all aspects of the natural world. He dubbed these processes as actions of the Proteus, which have 3 aspects. Proteus in potentia is the nucleus of formative forces with productive potential. Proteus actus is the actualization of that potential. Finally, Proteus actus adaptus is the additional adaptive quality to Proteus actus.

Though his theories faded into obscurity, there is still an poetic quality and elegance to the idea of the Urpflanze. Anyone who watches plants grow and emerge can only wonder at their formative forces and meaning of their patterns.

About Author

Renée A. Davis MA RH is a designer and educator in botanical and mycological medicine. Her training began at the Pratt Institute of Art and Design in New York City and concluded in biomedical sciences at the University of Washington. She currently directs research and development for a nutraceutical mushroom company in the Pacific Northwest.

6 Comments

  • Mirko Baglione
    January 28, 2012 at 5:18 am

    If you read “Die Metamorphose der Pflanzen” you never find a single hint to the idea of a “Urpflanze”. You find it in letters to Charlotte von Stein sent by Goethe during his stay in Palermo, Italy, and in der “Italienische Reise”

    Reply
    • Renée A.D.
      January 28, 2012 at 10:47 am

      Thanks for the correction Mirko. You’re right, it’s only in a 2009 edition where Gordon Miller writes at length about it in the introduction. This edition also has a lot of notes connecting Goethe’s observations back to the Urpflanze. I stand corrected and will edit the post accordingly.

      Reply
      • lorenzo de francesco
        January 3, 2015 at 6:16 pm

        Hello Renee
        Some one said that my sculpture resemble the Arpflanze of Goeth….
        My latest work can be seen on:
        You tube Lorenzo De Francesco Broken cross, Feel free to add your comments.
        Thank you

        Reply
  • Andy
    April 3, 2013 at 11:09 am

    What book does the image you have here come from?

    Reply
  • […] has become my ‘art urpflanze’ (the word urpflanze was first coined by Goethe. It was the primal generative plant from which all plant forms could be generated. He believed […]

    Reply
  • gartenpracht
    July 7, 2016 at 10:09 am

    Hi there! This article couldn’t be written much better!

    Looking at this article reminds me of my previous
    roommate! He continually kept talking about this. I’ll forward this post to him.
    Fairly certain he will have a great read. Thank you for sharing!

    Reply

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