Monday, November 13, 2006

Ginkgo Season, or Why I Hate Fall


Well, I don't really hate fall.

And the only reason I hate fall is that I grew up in Chicago, where fall was cold and rainy and portended a Chicago winter.

And another reason I hate fall is that it means the start of the school year, which for years meant the end of the freedom from bullying that summer provided.

But the main reason I hate fall is that it is when ginkgo trees drop their berries. According to the relevant Wikipedia article:

The seed coat contains butanoic acid and smells like rancid butter (which contains the same chemical) when fallen on the ground.

This is an understatement. The smell is in fact quite complex, and redolent of just about any foul-smelling substance or object you can think of. Perhaps the only worse smell I've smelled was produced by a small cyst on someone's back that, umm, exploded. I'll hide the identity of the afflicted, since I'm married to her. The incomparable David Sedaris describes the smell of a popped cyst thusly:

The stench... was unbearable, and unlike anything I had come across before. It was, I thought, what evil must smell like—not an evil person but the wicked ideas that have made him that way.

The smell of ginkgo berries is better, but not much.

I've been obsessed with plants since the summer before I started high school, and I knew in theory of the smell of ginkgoes, though I hadn't experienced it firsthand. This was, I thought, because ginkgoes are dioecious -- there are separate male and female plants. (A more famous dioecious plant is Cannabis sativa, the females of which being the ones that are of recreational use.) There were ginkgoes aplenty in the Chicago neighborhood I grew up in -- ginkgoes are famous for their ability to thrive in harsh urban environments. Yet it was not until I was in college that I smelled ginkgoes in the fall -- there was a row of them next to the library. Studying became even more of a chore now that it involved running an arboreal gauntlet. Yet each fall an elderly woman, presumably originally from East Asia (she actually wore a conical hat) would brave the stench and gather the berries, which are eaten in many East Asian cuisines.

I was shocked, then, when I lived for a year between college and graduate school in the neighborhood I grew up in and found that in the fall the plentiful ginkgoes, or more accurately half of them, would produce copious and malodorous berries. What had changed? I can only assume that they were planted recently enough that they hadn't yet reached maturity when I was growing up. After all, I can't imagine that they were commonly planted in American cities a generation or two ago.

I quite like my current neighborhood in New York, but it is rank with ginkgoes. There is in fact not a single route I can take to campus that does not involve walking over patches of sidewalk piled with stinking ginkgo berries. Which is my current excuse for not going to the library.

7 comments:

the chocolate lady said...

I'm always promising that next year I'll make some attempt to collect gingko nuts and do something or other with them. I've had them once or twice in restaurants, and they are delicious--subtler and more interesting chestnuts.
The challenge, of course, is removing the husks, and the embarrassment of interacting with plants in the city.

Anonymous said...

Wow, I thought I was the only one who dreaded the fall because of Gingko trees. I moved to DC three years ago and now refer to them in my own head as dog sh*% trees because that's what the rotting berries on the ground smell like and the whole neighborhood reeks.

... dancing monkey ... said...

My significant other just referred to them as crapberries ... they are worst part of fall, and I fear that the season seems to arrive later and last longer, each year. Perhaps a sign of global warming/climate change?

Anonymous said...

They smell like vomit... I live on a Chicago block and the whole street REEKS. They are sappy and get all over your shoes. I cross the street to avoid them. There were three Asian ladies colleting them when I went for coffee a little while ago. UGH. The odor is so repelling and makes me gag.

Anonymous said...

I live in Queens New York, and my apartment complex is surrounded by Ginkgoes!! They smell like dog pheces, quite literally. The smell can be unbearable. I have asked my complex to replace the trees to a non-berry producing variety, however the problem is, Mayor Bloomberg's new city law involving trees...
If you cut down a tree in New York City, you must plant three trees in its place! Ridiculous considering the hinderence these berries are to the quality of life. I can easily say I hate these trees.

Anonymous said...

I have one on my parking. For years it was a male tree then it changed to a female and started dropping berries. Yes, they smell like a mixture of dog doo doo and vomit. I've had to dig up my entire parking because hundreds of the seeds rooted and started growing. But I've heard they can be injested and extract is sold as memory aid (ginkgo biloba). Anyone know "how" one would eat them/prepare them?

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