Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Ginkgo Alley

The unseasonable warmth continues in my neck of the woods, with highs in the 50s forecast for the rest of the week. I just returned from a walk to run errands, two banks and the post office, exactly four miles round trip according to Google Earth. It feels good to be able to propel myself on these routine missions, for several rather obvious reasons. Why use the car, and burn fossil fuels, when I don’t need to?

Plus, I enjoy the walking. Of course I like walking in nature best, but any old walk will do: I’m easy. Fresh air, sunshine, interesting sights. SodaBoy used to mock me sometimes when I’d try to talk him into joining me in a prowl around the neighborhood. He loves hiking, but wants his walks to be somewhere interesting. Forced marches is the term he coined for my “boring walks” around the neighborhood. But I always find things of interest.

Today’s walk led me through Tall Tree Cemetery, then through campus. I passed a tombstone marked with a birth year of 1904, but no year of death had been added later. Is that person still alive? Or did the family move away and inter their loved one elsewhere? And in a small parking area near the biology building, I saw vanity plates on approximately 15% of the cars: CASTANEA, CATFOOT, and YBE NRML. There were zero customized plates in two larger parking areas by the engineering building and the gymnasium. This is obviously too small a sample size to tell us anything meaningful, but do biologists get customized license plates more often than other academics? See how it works? I can entertain myself endlessly with such minutia.

I chose my path so that I walked on Ginkgo Alley in both directions. Ginkgo Alley is my name (I’m sure the cemetery administrators use another, more official, designation) for a lane in the graveyard that is lined on both sides with majestic old ginkgo trees, the biggest I’ve ever seen. Ginkgo biloba trees are dioecious, and oddly enough, both male and female trees were planted along Ginkgo Alley. This is highly unusual. The male trees bear pollen cones, and the female trees produce ovules, which develop into seeds after pollination. The seeds have a fleshy, fruit-like covering, and look much like pale cherries or small apricots.

Ginkgo trees are often used in landscaping, and as urban street trees. They are considered extremely tolerant of salt and pollution, are disease and insect resistant, and can even withstand massive radiation. Although the seeds are attractive enough, female ginkgo trees are rarely planted, at least in the United States. I’ve heard that the planting of female trees is actually banned in some municipalities. The city of Boise went so far as to remove 26 female ginkgo trees, and replant them with male cultivars.

The seeds contain n-butanoic acid, which has a distinctly unpleasant odor, most often compared to rancid butter. Vomit is actually what comes to my mind: ginkgo “fruit” smells exactly like vomit. The smell is strong enough that walking down Ginkgo Alley in the fall, with the seeds littering the pavement and squishing underfoot, can trigger the gag reflex. Really, all you can do is just try to hold your breath, and walk faster. It’s that bad.

The calendar says it’s January now, so I thought the time was well enough past for stinkiness, and I like the ginkgo tree. It’s a living fossil, after all, and damn interesting, and pretty, too. So I walked Ginkgo Alley today. There were a few malodorous seeds still lying about. So to immerse myself in the moment, I stopped, knelt, tied my shoe, and inhaled deeply. Oh yeah, baby, I'm alive!


Nicole said...

Gingko is my favorite tree. I love how it loses all of its leaves in one day. Love trees.

When I go on a forced march, I like to go in the evening when I can see people in their homes. I always wonder what other people are doing and I can catch a glimpse this way. Possibly a bit nosy, but interesting nonetheless.

Erin said...

Yay trees!

The other night I ran across my old flash cards from dendro, so I was quizzing Dad and myself. I stumped us both with Diospyros virginiana.

Sara said...

Nicole: your love of ginkgos is part of your China theme, right? There are some really big ginkgos there. But I've never traveled to Asia, so the ones in Ginkgo Alley are the biggest I've seen.

Erin: I'm thinking persimmon. Am I right? The hardest species to learn in dendro were those we never saw in their natural habitats. The greenhouses and arboretums are great, but those species never stuck as well for me.

JF, scientist said...

It sounds like a lovely walk to me, but then, Mr. S and I go on the same walk-to-the-park twice weekly, and then another walk-to-a-second park every. single. weekend. It never dulls!

I believe the nut inside the kernel which is inside the fleshy fruit is edible. They're supposed to be a delicacy when toasted. Never tried it though; it's too stinky to get it out!

Sara said...

JF, I've heard about the edible nut, too, that it's a delicacy traditionally served at weddings in some parts of Asia. Supposedly if you get the fruit right away, it doesn't smell as bad, but I never been in the right place at the right time to observe that. Every ginkgo fruit I've seen stinks like mad. But I like trying new things, so if I ever get the opportunity, I'll definitely give them a try.

Mary Stebbins Taitt said...

I do love Gingko trees, stink and all.

I'm not fond of foreced marches--I prefer the woods by far. But I walked to the doctor's today and I love to walk to the store and post office.

I'm enjoying the things I find fossilized into the sidewalks, among other things!

OK, dinner!

Yeah, persimmon, Ebenaceae.