Tuesday, April 9th, 2013
31

Your Street Probably Smells Like Semen Right Now—But It Might Not Next Spring

On a mild April night some years ago, I walked past a college dorm in New Haven and smelled something I couldn’t place. It reminded me vaguely of swimming pools. Was it chlorine? I sniffed again, more deeply than before. Suddenly I knew exactly what it was and hurried away, internally berating an unseen teenage boy. A few evenings later, in the same spot, I smelled it again. Filled with a sense of moral outrage I looked around, I looked up, and identified the culprit: A tree.

More precisely, a Callery Pear, or Pyrus calleryana, a deciduous tree that’s common throughout North America. It blossoms in early spring and produces beautiful, five-petaled white flowers—that smell like semen.

Like when you learn a new word and then see and hear it everywhere, after making the connection between Callerys and the scent of semen I saw and smelled them everywhere. I said that Callerys are "common": A preposterous understatement. In Manual of Woody Landscape Plants, which is for horticulturists what the DSM is for psychotherapists, Michael Dirr says that the Bradford Pear—a Callery cultivar—inhabits "almost every city and town to some degree or another" and warns that "the tree has reached epidemic proportions." There's one between my apartment and my favorite coffee shop in Brooklyn, and there’s probably one between your apartment and your favorite coffee shop. The last time New York’s Parks Department conducted a tree census, from 2005 to 2006, there were 63,600 Callery Pears, making it the third-most popular species in the city, after the London Planetree and the Norway Maple.

The Callery's aroma is an open secret. Three years ago The Frisky published an article titled "A Tree That Smells Like…Well…Um…," which directed me to a Yahoo! Answers thread on the topic, and to the Urban Dictionary entry "Semen Tree."

But in the professional literature, euphemisms abound. Dirr calls the Bradford "malodorous" and leaves it at that. (By contrast, here’s how he describes the Bradford’s fall coloration: "spectacular reddish purple, others yellow to red reminding of a persimmon orange.")

The way I see it, there’s weirdly little attention paid to the fact that, for a few weeks each year, there’s a good chance your street smells like semen. We just carry on as if that were normal.

The Callery’s not even the most-talked-about smelly tree, a distinction that certainly belongs to the vomit-perfumed Ginkgo. There’s even a New Yorker Talk of the Town about the Ginkgo’s stench—and the three media-savvy teenagers who formed an Anti-Gingko Tolerance Group. But the Callery? The New Yorker doesn’t care. There is no Anti-Callery Tolerance Group.

Despite the absence of grassroots agitating against the Callery, we may have reached peak semen-smell. As Dirr puts it, Bradfords tend to "develop rather tight crotches," which makes them prone to splitting as they age. And while not every Callery cultivar splits easily—the Aristocrat and the Chanticleer fare better—they’re all borderline invasive, taking up shop in abandoned lots without human intervention. (And less urban ecosystems as well: A National Parks Service publication explains how to cut them down and apply herbicides to the stumps.) For these reasons—not because of their smell—they’re falling out of vogue with urban parks departments.

New York now plants just 20 or 30 Callerys per year, while literally thousands are lost to attrition (from storm damage and such). Jeremy Barrick, the deputy chief of forestry, horticulture and natural resources at the Parks Department, expects the Callery to lose its number 3 spot in the 2015 census. He anticipates a total Callery count of roughly 30,000—a 50-percent decline from 2006.

That’s progress. But for the time being, you can tell it’s spring if you smell semen.




Juliet Lapidos is an editor at the New York Times. Photo by Bosc d'Anjou.

31 Comments / Post A Comment

@My Number Is My Address : YOU GLORIOUS BASTARD, YOU BEAT ME TO IT. Seriously, though, this was the first Mitchell and Webb sketch I ever saw, and it totally sold me on them for life.

@My Number Is My Address

V pleased this was the first comment.

you're a kitty! (#240,787)

@My Number Is My Address hahah oh thank god.

emberglance (#7,305)

I think there are other plants that also have the spunky aroma but I've tried in vain for years to get anyone else to agree about this – people deny it and look at me funny. So glad someone else has spoken out about this issue. The smell is revolting.

Michaela D@twitter (#231,577)

@emberglance I find that Carob trees, which are popular in my town, have a semen-smell phase.

lovelettersinhell (#13,711)

Vindicated. We had these trees in college, and I swore they smelt of semen, and everyone refused to listen to me.

bloomer (#243,042)

@lovelettersinhell Yes! I came here to write the exact same comment. My friends always looked at me funny.

It's referred to as a "Pussy Willow" tree.

Smitros (#5,315)

The fruiting gingko, for those who haven't experienced it, exudes a stench like some horrendous combination of vomit and feces. How one ranks this in relation to the Callery Pear is presumably a matter of individual taste and judgment.

@Smitros I grew up amidst a grove of fruiting ginkgoes and it's really not so bad. And it's just the rotting fruits not the trees themselves that smell. If you have a handy supply of child labor at hand and see to it quickly enough you can clean them up and live life just like a normal person. Now to see to this boxwood nutter a few doors down.

Smitros (#5,315)

@My Number Is My Address We need this child labor on the municipally maintained sidewalks of DC.

BadUncle (#153)

@My Number Is My Address Completely disagree. It's a TERRIBLE smell. It's so aweful, DC has an active program to sterilize the trees every spring. Given there's no municipal sidewalk cleaning, and the rats won't even touch the fruit, stretches of walkway can be left nauseating for weeks.

BadUncle (#153)

@Smitros You have municipal sidewalk cleaning? We didn't when I lived in Adams Morgan in the 80s.

notfromvenus (#232,002)

@My Number Is My Address Or old Korean ladies, who apparently like to harvest them and make some medicine or something out of them. When I lived in Bethesda they'd go around on the street and pick them, which somewhat cut down on the amount of nasty fruit the ended up on the ground. (By "somewhat", I mean there was still enough left on the ground to stink up your shoes.)

jrb (#3,020)

I'm sure this is great, but that first sentence is a doozy.

alorsenfants (#139)

In Central Virginia, you can count on an evergreen bush called a "Boxwood" to conjure up the same scent in spring and summer.

So: is that 'equal representation'?

What can we say — would be worse if it weren't?!

Don't Think So!

MrsLlama (#167,676)

@alorsenfants the Boxwood has the most wonderful smell of any tree in Christendom (native Virginian). They definitely do not smell like cum.

When I lived in Southern California, we called it "The Valley Smell".

BadUncle (#153)

@Clarence Rosario There was a whole Cecile Adams series on the mysterious "Semen Trees of LA," which he was never able to identify.

Fatima (#243,014)

We have these trees all over my university campus but I didn't notice the smell until my roommate pointed it out. And then I stumbled upon this article and now my life is in shambles, haha. I literally feel like I am surrounded by these trees and that I cannot escape them. I get the worst headaches when I stand around them for too long. Awful.

YES. My college roommate, poet that she was, called them Cum Trees. I told my fiance about it, and he was skeptical. I was like, "Oh come (heh) on….you know what I'm talking about." He feigned allergies.

Trilby (#3,897)

Semen has a smell? Really? I cannot summon it up….
Why are you smelling semen anyway. Ginko has got to be worse than whatever this tree smells like.

indiemaiden (#236,257)

Oh god, I'd forgotten about this. Park Slope is about to start smelling like ass. Last year was awful!

lucy snowe (#242,337)

I always used to eat lunch outside the performing arts library at Lincoln Center. This time of year, I'd sometimes invite my colleagues to dine with me under the jizz trees.

They're been replaced by the nifty slopey lawn. Probably just as well.

iridandote (#243,053)

Probably just as well.

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Mike Darwin (#243,744)

The reason the blossoming Callery Pear tree (and the Ginko tree) smell like human semen is due to the presence of the highly odoriferous molecules spermine, spermidine and putrescine. These chemicals, which are in a class called polyamines, are present in all plant tissues. Spermine, spermidine and putrescine are "ancient molecules" which have important regulatory functions in most, if not all species that stretch back to at least the archaebacteria, which are known to have existed as long as 3.5 billion years ago. The semen of most carnivores, including that of dogs and cats, lack these chemicals, and thus do not smell like human semen.

The odor of semen is considered unpleasant by most people because the polyamines, and in particular putrescine (and cadaverine) are largely responsible for the distinctive and offensive odor of decaying flesh – hence their names. Putrescine is a potent attractant for many insects and especially for blowflies, such as the blue bottle fly (aptly named Calliphora vomitoria) and the green bottle fly(Phaenicia sericata), which lay their eggs in rotting meat, feces and garbage – all of which are strong emitters of putrescine.

The function of the polyamines in human semen is unknown. In plants and many microorganisms these chemicals exert profound control over growth, development and aging. Spermine, for instance, is effective at halting aging in many types of plant cells. Interestingly, spermine and spdermidine, when added to the diet of rodents have recently been shown to decrease the death rate and reduce the incidence and severity of age-associated degenerative disease! These polyamines also appear to play a significant role in the creation and proliferation of cancer cells in humans and animals and are the thus a target for the development of novel anti-cancer drugs.

Selected Bibliography:

Friedman SM, Oshima T. Polyamines of sulfur-dependent archaebacteria and their role in protein synthesis. J Biochem. 1989 Jun;105(6):1030-3. PubMed PMID:
2504703.

Soda K, Dobashi Y, Kano Y, Tsujinaka S, Konishi F. Polyamine-rich food decreases age-associated pathology and mortality in aged mice. Exp Gerontol. 2009 Nov;44(11):727-32. doi: 10.1016/j.exger.2009.08.013. Epub 2009 Sep 6. PubMed PMID: 19735716.

Minois N, Carmona-Gutierrez D, Madeo F. Polyamines in aging and disease. Aging (Albany NY). 2011 Aug;3(8):716-32. Review. PubMed PMID: 21869457

Kusano T, Berberich T, Tateda C, Takahashi Y. Polyamines: essential factors for growth and survival. Planta. 2008 Aug;228(3):367-81. doi:
10.1007/s00425-008-0772-7. Epub 2008 Jul 2. Review. PubMed PMID: 18594857.

Scalabrino G, Ferioli ME. Polyamines in mammalian ageing: an oncological problem, too? A review. Mech Ageing Dev. 1984 Aug;26(2-3):149-64. Review. PubMed PMID: 6384679.

Huang Y, Pledgie A, Casero RA Jr, Davidson NE. Molecular mechanisms of polyamine analogs in cancer cells. Anticancer Drugs. 2005 Mar;16(3):229-41. Review. PubMed PMID: 15711175.

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