Soon after a craft beer festival in Lafayette Park, a neighbor whose dog was mixing with mine commented on a strong smell, like that of someone having barfed nearby.
That odor actually IS the smell of someone barfing nearby. It’s butyric acid, and it’s formed by the rotting fruit of the female ginkgo tree. I say female because there are two sexes to this tree. Not that this would help you select one to plant, as they are also known to change sex from male to female on short notice.
A nice way to remember this tidbit is that ginkgo rhymes with stinko. But there is better poetry here than that, and many reasons to appreciate this leafy wonder.
The ginkgo is a dinosaur tree, dating back at least 270 million years, all the while showing little change. Here’s a sample leaf from the fossil record:
Native to China, and widespread in Japan as well, it has become another cultural icon and occasional food in those ancient places. It can grow anywhere it gets enough sun, and thrives in spots challenged by altitude, climate, poor soil, erosion, and pests. In fact, the genetics of the ginkgo are pretty advanced for a prehistoric creature. It’s genome has over 10 billion base pairs, where humans have 3 billion, and It’s estimated that the ginkgo has over 40,000 genes – double that of humans. So this is one tough customer that can adapt to a wide range of conditions. It’s drought, wind and temperature tolerant, disease and insect resistant, can grow clonally, or set down aerial roots from its branches. It is thought to be able to live up to 2500 years, and if you bonsai one of them, the little guy will put up with the imposed miniaturization for centuries.
Albert Seward (1863 – 1914), a celebrated paleobotanist wrote that the ginkgo, “appeals to the historic soul: we see it as an emblem of changelessness, a heritage from worlds too remote for our human intelligence to grasp, a tree which has in its keeping the secrets of the immeasurable past”.
The ginkgo is a lonely guy who lost his family millions of years ago. In fact, Ginkgo biloba today lives in its own taxonomic division, the Ginkgophyta. This means it has to itself division, class, order, family, genus and species. We often use the word “unique” too easily – the ginkgo is the real deal.
So what use is it? Well, it puts down a dense root system that can stabilize soil, and it grows anywhere there is sun, and it survives almost anything. There is a spot in Hiroshima, Japan where six honored ginkgo trees, though burnt and twisted, survived the atomic blast of 1945, and are right back to thriving today.
The Chinese eat the small cooked seeds of the smelly ginkgo fruit, but even they recommend eating no more than ten. They are mildly poisonous, which may not make them worth the dining. You can buy ginkgo biloba extract in health stores, and it’s reputed to improve memory and generally fix what ails you. The Mayo Clinic can come up with no documented benefit, but shares six cautions and seven adverse interactions, including one with ibuprofen. The fruit pulp is a skin irritant, like poison ivy, and gloves are advised for handling.
And that smell…well, butyric acid is used as a fish bait attractant, and by protesters and college chemistry lab rats in the making of stink bombs. But look on the bright side – humans can detect butyric acid at a concentration of 10 parts per million, but your dog senses it at 10 parts per billion. So multiply what you’re smelling by 1000 and wonder, as you detect that pukey odor, why your pal is still interested in a dog treat. There’s a survival instinct for you!
You may not know who Howard Nemerov (1920 – 1991) was, but that’s why you have an archivist digging around for you. He was a terrific poet; in fact, he was a Pulitzer Prize winner in 1975, and twice named U.S. Poet Laureate. His star, like that of Joseph Pulitzer himself and T.S. Eliot, is featured on the St Louis Loop Walk Of Fame, and he was a Distinguished Poet In Residence at Washington University from 1969 – 1991.
He noted something I first paid attention to this November 9th. Walking the dog that morning, it was clear that all the ginkgo leaves on all the ginkgo trees had fallen overnight. On cue, as if scripted. And it’s not just this year, it happens every year, and makes for some dramatic saffron yellow displays in Lafayette Square. Check it out:
Even my personal favorite, Thomas Hart Benton, flanked as he is by giant ginkgos, gets a blanket of the leaves, and unfortunately, the site eminates a smell that compromises the beauty of the scene. Life is full of trade-offs.
So here is Howard Nemerov from 1975. The book was “The Western Approaches” and the poem is “The Consent.”
Late in November, on a single night
Not even near to freezing, the ginkgo trees
That stand along the walk drop all their leaves
In one consent, and neither to rain nor to wind
But as though to time alone: the golden and green
Leaves litter the lawn today, that yesterday
Had spread aloft their fluttering fans of light.
What signal from the stars? What senses took it in?
What in those wooden motives so decided
To strike their leaves, to down their leaves,
Rebellion or surrender? and if this
Can happen thus, what race shall be exempt?
What use to learn the lessons taught by time.
If a star at any time may tell us: Now.
This wonderful piece was inspired by the Ginkgo Walk at Washington University. Here’s a tribute to the poem and the Walk, from students at the University:
Thanks to research sources including:
The Fortnightly Kitti Carriker – Capturing the Ginkgo Light; 2010 http://kitticarriker.blogspot.com/2010/10/capturing-ginkgo-light.html
Science Life blog; University of Chicago Medicine; November 13, 2015
Very solid Wikipedia entries for Howard Nemerov and Ginkgo biloba
The Fall Of The Ginkgo; Slate Magazine; Howard Grabar; November 2018
Mayo Clinic Online; Ginkgo biloba; https://www.mayoclinic.org/drugs-supplements-ginkgo/art-20362032