Ginkgo-Lined D.C., Capital of the U.S., and Now P.U.

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 13, 2008

The bouquet of a ginkgo tree's fruit has strong notes of unwashed feet and Diaper Genie, with noticeable hints of spoiled butter.

For the District government this winter, it is the smell of defeat.

This year, arborists working for the city tried a new solution for the stinky fruit, which has plagued residents for decades. They injected more than 1,000 ginkgo biloba trees with a chemical to stop them from producing the fruit.

Whoops.

The chemical didn't work, for reasons that scientists still don't understand. Now, instead of less ginkgo stink, Washington has its worst case in years -- a bumper crop of nastiness that is studding sidewalks and sliming dress shoes from Capitol Hill to Kalorama.

"Uuuuugh. Uuuuugh," said Christine Lombardi, working the front desk of the Hotel George near Union Station. Out front, a ginkgo had been dropping berries for days. "It's just awful because people step on it outside, and then they bring it inside the hotel, and people think somebody got sick."

Ginkgoes, known in more pleasant seasons for their golden fan-shaped leaves, are an ancient species, cultivated in China and Japan for centuries. But they have many modern virtues: They tolerate the heat and cold of eastern U.S. cities, stand up well to their smog and don't heave up the sidewalks with their roots.

The problem is their fruit.

It begins growing in summer and by autumn ripens to look like a wrinkly yellowish grape. When it starts to fall in November, the fruit is imbued with butyric acid, a chemical found in rancid butter.

"I'm sure there was some purpose it served" in some long-ago Asian forest, said Earl Eutsler, an arborist with the D.C. Urban Forestry Administration. "Now, it just makes people angry."

In the suburbs, jurisdictions prevent this problem by planting only male ginkgoes, which don't produce fruit. Kris Gasteiger, the former community forester for Bowie, said this approach worked every time but one -- when a tree that was supposed to be male developed more fully and turned out not to be.

"If the homeowner complains, which they usually do," the tree will be cut down and replaced, Gasteiger said. "If anybody is planting ginkgoes, they're being very careful not to plant the female," he said.

Many of the District's ginkgoes date back decades, before scientists knew how to tell male saplings from females. More than 1,000 females were planted, and many are tall and old now -- too grand to be given the death penalty over a smell.

So the city tried to do the next best thing: stop the trees from reproducing. For years, the District used a spray called Sprout Nip. But this didn't work reliably, city officials said, because a good rain could wash it off.

This year, injections were tried. In the spring, city workers used mammoth hypodermic needles to inject a chemical mixture that contained enriched vitamin C into the base of the trunk. In previous tests, this had caused the ginkgoes' flowers to fall off before they transformed into fruit.

But "it wasn't as effective as we had hoped," Eutsler said.

To people's surprise, trees across the city had a "full-out fruit." As the berries fell, they were ground into the sidewalk, releasing a powerful aroma that triggered questions on blogs across the District. Many struggled to describe it in newspaper-friendly terms.

"Is this going to be quoted? It just smells like vomit," said John Hockensmith, near Dupont Circle.

"I just walked through Adams Morgan, and it is brutal. Oh yeah, it smacks you in the face," said Dan Silverman, editor of the Prince of Petworth blog. "It smells like, um, well, to not be too crude, it smells like dog [waste]."

City arborists say they don't know why the chemical didn't work. This might be just a crazy year for trees: Oaks have been producing curiously few acorns. The manufacturer, Chip Doolittle of Omaha, said he's never been sure why the chemical worked in the first place: "I don't know that I understand all of it."

For now, the city says, all that remains is to tolerate the stench and sweep up the berries. Of course, not everybody thinks it's so awful: As Eutsler and a colleague were explaining the problem on Swann Street NW yesterday, surveyor J.L. Frinks walked over to ask whether the stinky things were edible. Yes, he was told.

And then, Frinks picked one out of a muddy tree box and put it in his mouth. He grimaced a little.

"It tastes pretty good," he said. "Once you get past the smell."


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