Friday, November 28, 2014

Ginkgo Stinko

It would happen in the fall. There would be a strong stench from the trees alongside the Murray Hill LIRR station in Flushing, along the 149th Place side, between 41st Avenue and Barton Place. A really rancid odor that, if there was such a thing, would be called "tree poop."
And in many ways it was tree poop. It was ginkgo nuts that fell from the 4-5 ginkgo trees that became squashed underfoot, or by cars. Very smelly tree road-kill.
It was like that as long as I can remember. And that would take me back to the early 50s. I once read an explanation of female and male ginkgo trees, and that the nut-bearing female trees were planted there by mistake, but to me, that was just urban legend.
And then the WSJ's November 25th A-HED piece revealed all. Accidental planting of female ginkgo trees is exactly what happened in parts of the city, and on that particular stretch of block by the railroad station, which at some point in the 60s was no longer a building but rather just a set of staircases going down to the platforms. The station building that was once there was torn down because of vandalism and the distinctive permanent urine smell it held inside. It had become a hangout, and unsocial things were being done there.
The A-HED piece goes on to explain that "one man's soup is another man's stench." A ginkgo nut is a delicacy used in Asian cooking. But squashed on a pavement, it's worse than fermented dog-do.
It turns out that when the city was planting ginkgo trees, it was hard to tell the female trees from the male trees. And that it took 25 years for the female ginkgo trees to bear nuts. Thus, mistakes were made. If female trees were planted near even one male tree, nature delivered ginkgo produce.
My theory is that when the LIRR open cut trenched the Port Washington line in the late 1920s from street level tracks, they surely had to do some fresh landscaping. A ginkgo tree is an attractive tree, if it's not belching. The leaves turn a bright yellow in the fall, and have a nice, delicate fan shape.
So, at least one male was mixed in with the women. This pre-dated unisex toilets. And for years and years, no one could care less, because the trees didn't produce anything but leaves. But, then came maturity, probably sometime near the dawn of my birth, and suddenly, there was a holy stink that filled the air in the fall as the nuts fell and were trampled open, and wafted out their odor.
In the 1980s, Asians increasingly moved into Flushing and found the trees. The ginkgo nuts were a prized commodity to these Asians, and they went to some extremes to harvest a free tree crop. I never saw anybody actually climbing the trees, and they were too mature to shake in order to make them give up their crop, but I did see people picking up the nuts before they were smashed. Often, several people.
And then there was that one Sunday morning when I went for the paper and someone was tossing a two-foot plank of wood up into the branches trying to dislodge nuts. Over and over again, until they got enough or were discouraged with their haul. I had to walk around this ginkgo nut and his falling boomerang.
David Marcelis, in his A-HED piece, tries to describe the smell of mutilated ginkgo nuts. He tells us the pulp of the nut contains butyric acid, the same as found in rancid butter, and everyone's favorite fragrance--vomit. I kid you not, he's got it right.
The byproduct of the increasing Asian population was that the stink no longer lasted very long in the area. The nuts became scooped up before they could be crushed and turned into the opposite of air fresheners.
As for myself, I solved the problem of smelling the trees (and a few other problems), by moving.

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