Heaven tree, so. Tree of heaven. Ailanthus altissima. Year after year you passed the Amsterdam Hugo de Grootplein almost every day and all the while you wondered what kind of trees were standing there. Those trees with that strange smell that are now in bloom. You never got around to figuring it out.
And it was that simple. The municipality of Amsterdam keeps track of exactly which trees it manages and has had them carefully mapped for years. Meanwhile that map digitized and you can point to any tree you want to know the name of. And vice versa, see where in Amsterdam all the trees of heaven are. Or, for example, all ginkgos, also called “Japanese nut trees.” Vespuccistraat, Marcantilaan, Populierenweg, Lepelkruisstraat.
The system has limitations. Shrubs are not counted and what is in the inner gardens is also not included in the inventory. Furthermore, the map is not always up-to-date. It has not yet been processed that the beautiful swamp cypresses of the Frederik Hendrikstraat have been replaced by a pair of skinny elms. The cypress trees were cut down because their roots made bumps in the bike path.
Locations of three tree species in Amsterdam: ginkgo, tree of heaven and bald cypress
Infamous carrot print
It can also happen to the trees of heaven because their root imprint is notorious and they are also considered invasive exotics that are a danger to nature. Ecologists hate them with all their pure hearts. The trees, originally from China and Korea, spread easily in the wild and make life miserable for the native flora with their root exudates.
And the trees have that other property that can break them up: the male flowers (the tree is dioecious) smell penetratingly of semen, of semen. Those who were once affected by the agreement will never lose the association. It’s a smell many recognize, but few are brazen enough to discuss, judged a Canadian lady who had the trees of heaven cut down in her neighborhood. The Hugo de Grootplein already smells of herring and chips, the seed smell can sometimes become too much once it is recognised. It’s best not to start over.
Many plants appear to spread semen-like odors, the sweet chestnut (Castanea sativa) is known for it. It is fortunate to be more or less native and to have been little planted as a city tree. Chinese researchers, who a lot of work stuck in semen odors, thinking it is the substance 1-pyrroline that gives chestnut flowers their typical smell gives. There was little to be found about the Tree of Heaven in that regard.
Remarkably, the scent of the celestial tree flowers and that of bruised celestial tree leaves is also often described as that of unwashed gym shoe socks, cooked meat, and rancid or burnt peanut butter. Others describe her as ‘not exactly unpleasant’. The many insects that visit the flowers probably do too.
Stink cheese and cat piss
Smells are not easy to describe and everyone has their own opinion about it, that’s just the way it is. Had it been otherwise, the scientific floras would have included them as a distinguishing feature in their identification tables. Nevertheless, almost everyone finds the scent of elder, linden or lilac pleasant. Like almost everyone the smell of the ‘fruits’ (they are not real fruits) of the ginkgo biloba seems repulsive. It is reminiscent of a mixture of vomit and rancid butter, the victims write on the internet. Or dog poop, stinky cheese and cat piss. And again: unwashed gym socks. Gardening services make every effort to produce exclusively male Ginkgos (this plant is also already dioecious), but a problem is that the sex of seedlings only manifests itself after about ten years. Then a male Ginkgo can just turn out to be a female. That male Ginkgos can spontaneously change into female Ginkgos over time, as claimed on the internet, is a myth. Sometimes it seems like this.
The flowers of the wild mountain ash (Sorbus aucuparia) spread, according to some, a heavy, sweet air, a sweet heavy smell. The Flora of the Netherlands, on the other hand, calls it a bait-smelling, sickly scent. Further on the internet, dog poop, dirty diapers and rotting meat are cited for the description. The semen figures there as spunk. We at AW missed the word cat piss.
Suddenly there was the question of what the general opinion is about the peculiar smell of the uni-style hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna). Do you have to call the floral scent pleasant because the hawthorn is so sympathetic? In England this is not necessary. The hawthorn smells like rotting flesh, they say there, it reminds of patients with gangrene. Long ago, the smell was associated with the plague, you never brought hawthorn branches into your home. But in France, especially sexual undertones in the hawthorn scent were observed, there it was not uncommon to put a posy of hawthorn in front of young girls’ windows. You can find the wisdom by offering Google the keywords ‘hawthorn’ and ‘smell’. Sex and death: the connecting element is in the fragrance ingredient trimethylamine, which is released during both sex and spoilage. And damn, then there’s someone who thinks the hawthorn smells like almonds.