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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.