How Is a Ginkgo Tree Like a Discarded Computer?

This time of year in New York City, it’s easy to find elderly Chinese women in Central Park stooped beneath trees, gathering up what look like small plums. The trees are ginkgo trees, which drop their fruit when ripe; the fruit has long been prized in China and Japan as both a food and a medicine.

A helpful friend tells me that in Chinese, the fruit is called “Bai-guo,” or “white fruit.” It is thought to aid digestion, improve circulation, and prevent mental deterioration in the elderly.

Two more things about the ginkgo fruit:

1. It is produced only by a mature female ginkgo tree — the ginkgo being a 70-million-year-old species and one of the few trees that has a male and female version. The male does not produce fruit.

2. The fruit smells horrible, like a cross between vomit and too-strong cheese. When the conditions are right (or wrong, depending on your perspective), great swaths of Central Park can smell like vomit, all thanks to a bunch of ginkgo trees.

So why did the city plant so many trees that had the potential to smell so bad?

The tree was plainly a good fit for Manhattan. Here’s what Steven D. Garber wrote in The Encyclopedia of New York City, adapted from his book The Urban Naturalist:

About 1900 it became popular in New York City and Washington for its beauty and its ability to survive gamma radiation, sulfur dioxide, and ozone pollution; it was soon planted in cities across the country. Ginkgos are almost unknown in the wild.

As it turns out, a ginkgo tree can take 30 years or more to reach reproductive age, and until then it is nearly impossible, without DNA testing, to tell whether a ginkgo is male or female.

In a few long-ago Times articles about the ginkgo tree, gender is never mentioned. “The ginkgo, or maidenhair tree, is one of the very best; it is first class,” said William R. Smith, superintendent of the city’s Botanic Gardens, in an article dated Nov. 29, 1895. “The only objection is the bad odor the fruit has when matured. My first handling of it cost me three hours’ time and a bar of soap to be rid of it.”

All of which makes it sound as though, at the time, it wasn’t even known to be possible to plant a male (and hence fruitless) ginkgo tree. So it may well be that an accident of biology, or at least a misunderstanding thereof, has led to a boon for the modern scavenger economy in New York City.

On the other end of the scavenger spectrum, meanwhile, check out this video produced by the Asia Society, depicting poor people in China who try to wring from discarded computers any kind of valuable material they can, often at considerable danger to themselves. (The Asia Society has a bunch of other really interesting videos available here.) The rise of so-called e-waste is documented here as well.

So by now it’s apparent what the ginkgo and the discarded computer have in common: they each fuel a Chinese scavenger economy. That said, these two economies couldn’t be much more different. One is accidental, efficient, and benign (except for the nasty smell). The other is none of those things, although it probably does produce a smell all its own.


Toni

Matt--from what I just read in Wikipedia, I think that is the case.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ginkgo

Lee

There is also another tropical fruit tree called "durian". It smells like hell but taste like heaven. At some point in time it was banned from airline cargo holds as the smell is quite overpowering leading to grounding and evacuation of airplanes. I think you can not stop people from planting and eating something if the trade-off weighs in favor of the unique taste or perceived benefits.

Andy

While I don't know much about the gingko fruit, I am unfortunately all too familiar with the durian that potrzebie and Lee mentioned. Everything about the durian is unpleasant. The fruit is covered with sharp spines and the smell is a combination of onions and gym socks. And since the majority of what we perceive to taste is actually what we're smelling, it tastes just as bad (sorry Lee). Even with all of the funk emanating from that pod, it's mesmerizing how much people (in Singapore) love that thing. The epitome of an acquired taste.

Michael Zhao

As the producer of the "eDump" documentary film and a multimedia package, I am glad that the Times is picking this up. I also encourage people to see the 20-minute film at my site: michaelzhao.net (A LOT more strong images in there)

tom stovall

i'm visiting New York for the weekend and I stepped on one of them in the west village and thought I stepped on Dog stuff. Funny that this article was in the paper the next day :-)

Dave Gray

here's a rather mind-blowing article on computer "recycling":
http://www.viceland.com/int/v14n9/htdocs/ctrl.php?country=uk

erotikshop

BTW, other common dioecious trees are most hollies. If you have a holly tree which never produces berries, it's probably a male

MIke

The main campus of Purdue University (my alma mater) has a large number of Gingko trees. Because of the smell, we always called the fruit "sh*t berries." If you didn't watch where you were going and stepped on enough of them, it smelled like you walked through a pile of dog crap. Other than that, it's a pretty nice campus!

Zach

Not only do they smell terrible, they also don't provide any real shade like your classic elms and oaks do.

Jeff

As I think back about my marathon training in Central Park, the terrible smell was really the only unpleasant part about it---and I had no idea what that smell was...I just always saw an elderly asian lady picking up the berries, so I figured it was related. Now it all makes sense....kinda.

potrzebie

Just to clarify, the part that is commonly eaten is the nut contained inside the smelly fleshy part and the shell beneath. The nuts themselves don't have the foul smell. If you want to eat a foul-smelling southeast Asian fruit, durian fits the bill.

Matt Deckard

What does it mean for a tree to be a "70-million-year-old species"? Has the tree undergone absolutely no evolution for 70 million years?

Crash

#5 (Matt Deckard): It means that the morphology of the current tree very closely resembles fossils from 70 million years ago, and that there are no other close living relatives into which it has radiated (which would make it not so much a living fossil as a living family of organisms).

Clayton

The modern tree is nearly identical to imprints in 70 million year old fossils, which is what they mean when they say it's 70 million years old.

Rosie

I live in South Korea and the streets here are lined with them. You can see little old ladies and men out here collecting the fruit.

And yes, it is the nut they're after.

Todd

Rosie beat me to it, but yeah, please don't forget Korea. In fact, if anything, collecting the ginko (??, eun-haeng, in Korean) fruit in Korea is much more prevalent these days than in Japan.

Nina

Imagine how it must suck for a Korean family with a small garden to plant ONE Gingko tree in the hope of getting good-health nuts, only to find out thirty years later that the tree was male!

potrzebie

When gingkos are planted for ornamental purposes these days, they are typically grafted male trees. And I would imagine that gingkos planted for their nuts are usually grafted female trees, with sufficient male trees planted to provide pollination. BTW, other common dioecious trees are most hollies. If you have a holly tree which never produces berries, it's probably a male.

DEBuchner

I am trying desparately to find a male ginkgo tree. Do you know of anyone selling them? Please advise, I moved from IL to PA and had to leave my favorite tree behind and cannot find one here.

Mike

DEBuchner, I can send you some seeds if you will cover my shipping and gas costs (Maybe 10$). I gathered some seeds from a few Ginkgo tree's 90 miles from my house. So far I have had about 10% success rate, with more and more sprouting each week. (I have had them in Peat Moss compost for about 6 months, each time I decide that no more are going to sprout, and I go to throw them away, I see another one sprouting.)

I can also tell you what I did to get them to grow and "my theory" on how to identify the males from the female trees. It will only take me 20-30 years to see if my theory is right. (The male tree's I have seen so far are very scare Crow looking, where as the female tree's are more Globe shape. I think this is so that the wind can blow through the males, pick up the sperm and blowing them into the larger (Globe) shaped female trees. So far I have seen about 10 groups of tree's and my "Theory" has been correct so far) :)

I also have a .33 acre lot, and so far I'm planting about 4 tree's on my lot, with hopes that someday (Thousands of years from now the tree's will keep on living :))

Let me know.
Thanks
Mike

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