Stinky tree blooms in Philly (and it’s not a ginkgo)

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What smells horrible and fills the air around Center City each Spring? The answer, at least starting this week, is a foreign tree whose odor has been likened to “rotten fish.”

Many Philadelphians are familiar with the pungent fragrance of the female ginkgo tree, whose berries cover sidewalks and stink up the air across the city in the Fall. But this time of year the gingko’s springtime rival, the Bradford pear, is the one catching the nose of pedestrians.

The tree is native to Korea and currently in full bloom, said Connor Stanton, a project coordinator at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. During this two-week period, Stanton said, the trees will give off a strong and distinctive smell.

“It became a popular tree about 20 years ago,” Stanton said, admiring a Bradford pear at the corner of 16th and Cherry Streets. “It was deemed the perfect street tree because of its shape, its rounded canopy, its early bloom time, and its great fall color — it gets an orange to a bright red in the fall.”

Stanton said that because of the recent frost and rain, the trees odor isn’t what it was just a few days ago. As he spoke, a ginkgo tree caught his eye a few feet away.

“They smell somewhat similar to dog crap,” Stanton said. “There’s a ginkgo right next to this Bradford pear and they’re probably the two most smelliest trees in the city.”

They might stink, but the Bradford pears are beautiful — covered in an explosion of white blooms.

Pennsport resident William Haines said the smell of the Bradford pear has been making him queasy.

“I smell the Bradford pear trees usually in the mornings when I’m walking to the gym and there’s probably about ten of them on the way,” Haines said. “When the breeze picks up it smells disgusting. I’ve gotta keep the towel over my face. It really makes me gag.”

“As somebody originally from the Pine Barrens, I don’t typically advocate de-forestation,” Haines added, “but I would like to see them all chopped down and burned.”

Good news for Haines — Stanton says the city stopped planting the trees a few years ago.

Besides smelling like dead fish, the trees are invasive. And their branch structure makes the limbs vulnerable to snapping off from snow and ice, leaving the tree susceptible to disease and pest damage.

While Arch Street will have Bradford pears for some time to come, Stanton said flowering lilacs and cherry trees are much better options for Philadelphia streets.

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