The Aroma of Autumn


Autumn greets us in September with the perfume of ripening apples and the smoky smell of burning logs, and then leaves us a few months later with the earthy odor of decaying leaves and the acidic scent of decomposing fruit and seeds. Of all of autumn’s aromas, the one that defines the season for me is the smell of rotting ginkgo nuts.

Peter Crane’s Ginkgo: The Tree That Time Forgot, a biography of the ancient species, describes the stench of ginkgo seeds as akin to rancid butter or human vomit. He writes:


My backyard is full of ginkgo trees, which I’ve learned to love despite the smelly seeds the females of the species produce each fall. They are elegant trees with beautiful, fan-shaped leaves. They are among the last trees to change color, turning gold for two or three weeks before shedding en masse. Golden ginkgo leaves grace the cover of Amelia Elkins Elkins, my modern retelling of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, and the trees also make appearances in both Two Lovely Berries, my new adult novel, and Anusha of Prospect Corner, the middle grade novel I wrote with my twins (forthcoming, January 2017). For example:

  • Amelia Elkins Elkins:
  • Two Lovely Berries:
  • Anusha of Prospect Corner:

The ginkgo trees in my garden are suburban giants, bigger than their city cousins but smaller than the species is capable of growing. All of my ginkgo trees are male except, unfortunately, for the tree closest to my house. That one has covered my back porch with its noxious seeds every year but this one. For some reason, there are no seeds this year, and for some reason, I miss them. Autumn just isn’t the same without their aroma.


  1. Ahhh the ginkgo tree… my old foe. My grade school was surrounded by ginkgoes growing up. When I was in the 3rd grade, I was pushed into a pile of ginkgo leaves/seeds/fruit… Needless to say when I came back in from recess I stunk up the room. It was so bad that the teacher sprayed air freshener. It was traumatic lol

  2. I’ve heard female ginkgo trees smell bad but never had the pleasure. Minneapolis plants them as boulevard trees but only male ones. They are really pretty in the fall when all the leaves have turned yellow. They tend to be the last trees here to drop their leaves so when all the others are bare they are still bright beacons.

    1. Minneapolis knew what it was doing when it planted only the male ones! Philly planted many that turned out to be female. I’ve grown accustomed to them, though, and now I miss their scent. I noticed that the female tree outside of the building where my girls take Spanish also has no nuts this year. It’s so unnerving.

  3. I didn’t know gingko trees smelled bad! One of my favorite books as a kid (The Witch Family) had a gingko tree in it that was kind of plot-important, and I’ve always liked the idea of gingko trees without being super sure what they looked like.

    1. The Witch Family looks like a perfect addition to my family’s library! We love our ginkgos, and I don’t think we could resist a book in which a ginkgo is important for the plot. Thanks for mentioning the book.

    1. Fall just doesn’t smell the same! I noticed that the female ginkgo outside the church where my girls’ take Spanish classes also has no nuts this year. It’s unnerving.

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