What’s that Smell?

November 3 2023
(L) Close-up of the fruit on a female Ginkgo, (R) One of the Ginkgo trees in WSP
(L) Close-up of the fruit on a female Ginkgo, (R) One of the Ginkgo trees in WSP

Have you ever been enjoying a lovely fall stroll through Washington Square Park and had your tranquil bubble popped by an offensive odor? It isn’t trash, or dog waste, it’s Ginkgo stink! Particularly strong in the east side of the Park where most of the Ginkgos grow, it’s a familiar smell in NYC during the fall months.

Ginkgo biloba, commonly known as ginkgo or gingko, is also known as the maidenhair tree for its delicate and frilly foliage that turns bright yellow in the autumn. Native to China, the Ginkgo is a member of a very old genus, with the fossils of some relatives dating back 270 million years! These trees have been widely cultivated from the earliest days of human history, serving as both a source of traditional medicine and food. They can reach an average height between 66-115ft tall, and boast an angular crown and long branches. These trees tend to root deeply and are resistant to wind and snow damage, a pretty important feature in NYC. 

While some trees are “Monoecious” (meaning they produce both the male and female parts required for reproduction), Ginkgos are Dioecious, which means each tree is either  male or female. Female trees produce its fruit, which can emit an unpleasant odor when crushed under foot. Two ovules are formed at the end of a stalk, and after pollination, one or both develop into soft, yellow-brown, fruit-looking seeds. These seeds are the source of the stench, containing butanoic acid, which causes a smell like rancid butter or vomit when the seeds are broken open. These fruits are edible in small doses, but it is the nut inside the fruit that is mainly used as a memory enhancer. For those who care to imbibe, caution should be taken as the fleshy outer fruit can cause dermatitis and the nut (seed) is mildly toxic. 

They say that beauty takes pain, and Ginkgo trees are a perfect example. Their golden foliage, glowing in the fall sunshine provides a stunning canopy for the odiferous seeds they spill at our feet. So next time you’re walking through the Park, be sure to watch where you step as you admire the glowing yellow above your head.