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Last summer’s drought was one of the worst on record in the District, wilting nearly every single blade of vegetation in the cityespecially the trees, those noble, shady sentries that make Washington an arboreal paradise. Only one species made it through unblemished: the mighty, oft-maligned ginkgo.
“All the trees in this city suffered because of the extreme drought, but the ginkgo withstood it better than any,” says Bill Beck, horticulturist for the District’s Trees and Landscape Division. Beck is an unabashed fan of the city’s 5,000 ginkgos, which belong to one of the oldest surviving tree families, dating back more than 150 million years.
That’s a long time to make the world plug its nose. Anyone who walks D.C. streets in the fall knows the stench of the ginkgo’s yellowish fruit, variously described as resembling that of burnt caramel, stale cabbage, the dried urine of rabid squirrels, or a paper mill. Years ago, the foul droppings incited attacks from District residentsespecially in Georgetown, naturally. It is the female ginkgo that produces the offensive berries, but, according to Beck, “the problem is that you can’t tell the sex of a ginkgo until they’re 25 years old.”
Complaints from residents who mistook their ginkgos for porous sewer pipes were still rife when Beck came to the work for the District in 1993, he says. In recent years, though, Beck has administered an annual spraying program/air-freshener system. Every spring, just as the female ginkgos bloom, workers spray the trees with an herbicide called Sproutnip. The procedure, at an annual price tag of $8,000, seems to be doing the trick. “I had one complaint in Northeast two weeks ago, and that’s the only one I’m aware of this entire fall,” says Beck.
That makes the ginkgo one of the lowest-maintenance trees in the city’s arboreal portfolio. “The ginkgo’s got a thicker, waxier leaf. It doesn’t have any insect problems; it can take the pollution; it can take the heat; it can take the car exhaust; it can handle the salt from the snow plows. It can withstand city conditions extremely well.”
Not to mention that some people like to make pastries from the fruit. Call it stinkpie. Eddie Dean