What’s that smell? Stinky ginkgo trees bring their scent to Brooklyn
Why does the city choose to plant the smelly trees along curbs?
Few smells signal the arrival of fall in the city like the pukey odor of the ginkgo biloba tree. Each year, ginkgos shower the sidewalks with their pungent seed pods, creating an obstacle course for anyone trying to pass beneath the branches without squishing a stink bomb under their shoe.
But why does the city plant ginkgos along curbs, where the foul-smelling fruit lands on the sidewalks? Because the ginkgo is “a great street tree,” according to Anessa Hodgson, a spokesperson for the city’s Parks Department. It’s sturdy enough to withstand all the pollution, disease, insects, pet waste, soil compaction, road salt, wind and piled up snow that city life can hurl at it, while many species aren’t.
The ginkgo is known for its fan-like leaves, which have been found in the fossil record dating back over 270 million years. Dried ginkgo leaves have been used for centuries in traditional Chinese medicine to ease lung ailments and improve circulation. For anyone brave enough to scrape away the pod’s smelly flesh, the seeds within are edible when cooked and, reportedly, pretty tasty.
The ginkgo earned its reputation for hardiness in early 19th century London, where coal pollution was killing off trees in droves. The ginkgos imported from Asia and replanted in the city’s botanical gardens seemed unphased by the smog, however, and arborists took note. Today, the resilient ginkgo is planted in cities around the world.
A Tree Census conducted by NYC Parks in 2015 found that the ginkgo ranks among the top 10 most common trees in Brooklyn, where the species makes up just over 3 percent of all mapped trees. In Manhattan, more than 9 percent of all trees are ginkgos.
Since only female ginkgos bear the smelly fruit, planting exclusively males seems like an obvious choice. That has been the plan for decades, according to Hodgson, but the female trees still aren’t going anywhere.
“We stopped planting female ginkgos in the 1990s because of their smell. However, there are still a few female ginkgos growing in NYC from before that policy took effect, as we do not remove healthy trees,” she said.
Even gender control isn’t a perfect solution, because the ginkgo can be a sex switcher. Although ginkgos are “born” either male or female (unlike some other tree species), individual branches have been known to change sexes in rare instances when there is a male-female imbalance. In other words: life, uh, finds a way.
According to Hodgson, the lady trees are unfairly maligned.
“Despite their smell, female ginkgos contribute just as much to absorbing CO2, soaking up stormwater, providing shade in the hot summer and good color in the fall,” Hodgson said.
The Tree Census found that New York City’s ginkgos remove more than 24,000 pounds of air pollutants, intercept more than 16 million gallons of stormwater and absorb nearly 6,500 tons of carbon dioxide each year.
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