The Ginkgo Problem: Butyric Acid

This blog is about smell and taste, but I usually focus on the good–or at least the scents and tastes that are intended to be good. But the other side can be just as interesting. Take the case of the stinky Gingko berry.

Every year at this time, a slew of articles come out in various cities complaining about the nasty smell of the berries that fall from the female ginkgo tree. Crushed underfoot on sidewalks, they smell like old cheese, vomit, feces, sweaty feet, and a variety of other foul things. But why?

A 2008 New Yorker “Talk of the Town” piece explained that the Ginkgo tree, with its fan-shaped leaves, is “a living fossil, dating to the early Permian era. It has no close relatives, and one of its chief characteristics is hardiness: ginkgos in Hiroshima survived the atomic bomb.” It’s the third most common tree in Manhattan, making up about 10% of all trees there.

Because they’re adaptable and have roots that don’t tend to upset sidewalks, they’ve been planted in cities all over the country, from Santa Monica to Washington, D.C. Only female Ginkgo trees produce the green cherry-like berries, so eventually, when arborists were able to identify young Ginkgos as either male or female, only male trees were planted. “Usually [female trees are] planted by mistake, and of course the males don’t have any fruit, so those are the ones you usually see on the street,” Fred Gerber of the Queens Botanical Garden told CBS 2 NY. Queens residents are up in arms about the stink this year.

According to a 2008 Washington Post story, about 1,000 large, decades-old female Ginkgo trees stinking up the nation’s capitol were treated with a chemical that would stop them from producing fruit, but it didn’t work.

“There are those people, though, who appreciate ginkgo fruit for the seed inside,” said CBS 2 NY. “Some said the seed tastes like a green pea crossed with Limburger cheese.” Ginkgo is a popular supplement that is said to improved blood flow to the brain, and memory.

The chemical that makes Gingko berries stink is butyric acid, a compound also found in rancid butter. The smell of butyric acid is so foul that it’s used in stink bombs. There was an episode of the Animal Planet show Whale Wars in which the anti-whaling group threw bottles of butyric acid on the decks of whaling ships to both spoil the whale meat and make working on the deck uncomfortable, if not impossible. “People vomit over the side when they smell it,” one activist said.

According to ProChoice.org, anti-abortion activists have been using butyric acid at abortion clinics since the early 90s. “There have been about 100 butyric acid attacks throughout the United States and Canada, causing in excess of $1 million in damages,” the website says. Carpets must be replaced, and cleanup doesn’t always get rid of the lingering stench.

Ginkgo leaf photo (c) 2004 daniel Miłaczewski via WikiMedia Commons

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