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The ginkgoes have got to go

BY CHRIS CLARK | OCTOBER 09, 2009 7:20 AM

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They could motivate a spoof of Lynard Skynard’s 1976 hit “That Smell.”

Anyone who has walked through downtown Iowa City in the fall knows that offensive odor: a sour, irritating scent reminiscent of used diapers filled with old cheese and rotten fruit.

Male ginkgo trees aren’t as offensive. The females reproduce by dropping small, spherical seeds that when smashed erupt with the sickening stench.

Someone needs to get rid of them.

They litter the city’s business district. Shoppers and innocent passersby step on the fallen fruit and plaster the mushy insides all over sidewalks and walkways. Patrons inadvertently track the rancid aroma through stores, burying it in carpets and rugs.

Needless to say, a smell like that doesn’t just stop by for a quick “Hello.” It sticks around for dinner — and maybe even breakfast the next morning.

Iowa City landscapers started planting the putrid, pulp-discharging trees in the 1970s. Ginkgoes typically don’t produce buds until years after they are planted, but thanks to a number of complaints from downtown business owners, it may soon be time to bid a final farewell to the boisterous bunch.

It’s a different story on campus.

Ten of the nearly 50 ginkgoes are female; four of the “more prominent” females take root on the Pentacrest, Andrew Dahl, the UI arborist.

One such tree stands outside Schaeffer Hall, providing more than just shade to anxious riders. While some people, such as me, find these trees to be a cruel mechanism for nasal torture, others, such as Dahl, see them as “wonderful trees for the urban landscape.” He even likes the females, he said, but only for the 50 weeks out of the year that they aren’t reproducing.

“They are very hardy, resilient, and trouble-free trees. No insects or diseases cause any serious problems for them,” he said.

And Dahl said the number of complaints regarding the falling fruits has decreased in the last few years.

The three-person team responsible for keeping up every tree on campus has no plan to remove or replace any of these scented trees in the near future.

“They would be removed if they were structurally unsafe or if there was a very high level of complaints relating to their smell,” said Bob Brooks, an associate director of Facilities Management’s building & landscape services. “Even in the latter case, their removal would have to be approved by the Campus Planning Committee.”

I sympathize, but respectfully disagree, with the crew and administrators who are in no rush to see the trees go. The ginkgoes have been on campus since the Hawkeye football and basketball teams each won two Big Ten titles in the 1950s.

When the trees were first planted, technology was too primitive to determine the sex of the plants before purchase. Brooks said when the UI first acquired the trees, the growers thought they were selling male trees, and no one really knew the truth until around 15 years later.

In 2004, university landscapers fielded several complaints about the fruit. Despite a variety of relatively unsuccessful treatments to eliminate and limit germination, four female ginkgoes saw their last days on campus, clearing up the air around Jessup and Macbride Halls.

Ginkgoes do have deeper reputations beyond just their B.O.-like pungency. They are known for their strength, their visual appeal, and their health.

But, Dahl said, the ginkgoes on the UI campus may have an even better story.

“Legend has it that these trees were grafted from a large tree that still stands on Dunlap Court in Iowa City,” Dahl said.

We should just move them all there.


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