Barfberries: The Story of the World's Stankiest Tree | News | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

News + Opinion » News

Barfberries: The Story of the World's Stankiest Tree


Published November 3, 2009 at 4:53 p.m.

Many are the reasons why fall is not my favorite time of year:

*My wicked summer tan fades to nothing
*Pre-winter fat begins to encase my body
*My favorite holiday — my birthday — is six months away

Granted, fall is when baseball blessedly falls off the sporting map and gives way to superior sports like football, hockey and curling. So that's a good thing. But fall is when the barfberries come out and ruin my life for the month of November.

You may be unfamiliar with these apricot-colored stink bombs. It's OK. I'm here to help.

A barfberry is the colloquial term for the world's most stank-ass tree, the ginkgo biloba. Or just the ginkgo tree if the proper name is too much effort. These are the trees that line sections of North Winooski Avenue in Burlington and in late October/early November they begin to drop their seeds and make their surroundings smell like something your dog yakked up.

Every year, I have wondered why the city would ever put such trees in the ground in the first place. I understand they're pretty — their golden leaves are shaped like delicate Chinese fans and they symbolize a romanticized view of the Orient before the West ruined it with our thirst for cheap sneakers and crap knickknacks. But when the city planted the trees 25 or so years ago, they should have realized they smelled to holy Hell.

Like a good little journo, I wanted to understand what made the trees smell like soiled drawers boiled in vinegar. So I called my now best friend Mark Starrett, a horticulturist in UVM's department of plant and soil science, and got some gee-dee answers. Here's what I learned:

The ginkgo biloba tree is one of the oldest flipping species in the world.They were invented 150-200 million years ago, or, if you're a fundamentalist Christian, that means about 6000 years ago. If you're a Scientologist, they're older than Xenu. Starrett says most plant species are infants compared with the mighty stinky ginkgo. The only tree in this region that comes close to being that old is the Dawn Redwood, or Metasequoia glyptostroboides for you sciencey, Carolus Lineas types.

Obviously, the ginkgo is not from around these parts. It's native to China and was brought over to North America in 1784. Yes, Starrett knew the exact date. (Extraneous information alert! — The ginkgo first made it to Europe in the 1730s. It was found growing in a nursery in the Netherlands next to huge stashes of dank bud. Then in 1754, it floated over to England. It traveled to Vienna in 1768 and France in 1780. In 1784 it was introduced to the William Hamilton Estate in Philadelphia, where it proceeded to stink up the entire country for the next 300+ years.)

Starrett also told me the barfberries aren't actually berries at all. They're seed pods. At some point before Jesus roamed the Earth, the pods were considered quite the delicacy to some animal that is long past the point of extinction. These animals would eat the fleshy pods, poop out the seeds and the miracle of propagation would begin.

Today, nothing in its right mind would eat these things. Except the Chinese. Apparently, the barfberries are roasted in China and folks eat the seeds, but not the flesh. Starrett advises against this, if for no other reason than the flesh, once it is split open, is toxic and will create a poison ivy-like rash on any skin that is exposed to it. So if you're walking on N. Winooski and you take a digger, pray to God it's not in a pile of mashed-up barfberries, or you'll have a face like a fat man's ankles.

What I really wanted to talk to Starrett about was the smell of the ginkgo seeds. Starrett described it as "dog poo with honey overtones" or "sweet dog poop." I would rather hotbox my own dog's poop than inhale the ginkgo aroma. But that's just me.

Starrett told me that the seed pods come from the lady trees, basically inferring that women smell. Apparently the male trees have no pods and thus are more desirable in landscape design. But, of course, because the male trees don't stink like toasted bile, they command a higher price at nurseries.

Now when municipalities plant ginkgos, they only buy male trees. But when Burlington planted theirs umpteen years ago, they had no way of sexing the trees. So they ended up with five female trees out of nine on N. Winooski.  Normally I'd be for this positive female balance, but not when it makes me dry heave.

Am I making too big a deal of this? Perhaps. But it's not just me. At least I know more than I did yesterday, which isn't saying much. Well, know thine enemy and all that junk, right?