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Seoul fights against stinky ginkgo trees

Ginkgo nuts on a street near the National Assembly in Seoul. The city government is cleaning the streets more often than usual following complaints about the bad smell of ginkgo nuts. / Korea Times

By Jung Min-ho

When fall is approaching, it is good to see ginkgo tree leaves on the streets turning yellow. However, those walking under the trees are forced to deal with the smell of ginkgo nuts.

"It smells like rotten cheese," a 32-year-old Seoul resident, surnamed Jun, said. "The smell is so strong that if I happen to step on one, the odor doesn't go away for the rest of the day."

Following increasing complaints from citizens, the Seoul Metropolitan Government (SMG) has started its annual fight against the smell from ginkgo nuts.

The city government said Friday that more than 440 workers are trying hard to get rid of the pungent nuts dropped from the ginkgo trees onto streets and sidewalks, cleaning them more often than usual.

"We are also encouraging citizens to take the nuts," an SMG official said. "One of the health effects of ginkgo nuts is that it relieves a cough. In fact, an increasing number of people take them."

Ginkgo trees, distinguishable by their fan-shaped leaves, are ubiquitous in many cities. Of Seoul's 290,000 street trees, about 40 percent, or 114,000, are ginkgo trees, according to the SMG.

Koreans started planting ginkgoes in the 1970s as they grow well without needing much care. They are known for their extraordinary resistance to diseases, pollution and pretty much everything else. The fact was highlighted after several survived the 1945 atomic bombing of Hiroshima in Japan.

But unlike many other tree species, the ginkgo is dioecious, meaning trees are male or female. Female ginkgoes produce the troublesome nuts, which are covered in a fleshy coating that contains butyric acid, which has an unpleasant smell.

In hindsight, it would have been better if the central and local governments had planted male trees for their urban planning in the first place. However, an SMG official said the DNA technology that can determine their sex was not discovered until 2011.

With the new technology, the SMG decided to replace female trees in some areas where the problem is especially serious, with male trees that do not produce the nuts.

"But the replacement may not be done as fast as many people want, due to the high cost," the official said.

According to the SMG, replacing one tree with a new one costs about 2 million won ($1,700).

Jung Min-ho

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